New Report: ‘Blowtorch’-Like Ocean Warming Advances Killer Seas, Shifts El Nino, Heats Hydrates

Tampering can be dangerous. Nature can be vengeful. We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live. — Carl-Gustaf Rossby

But as the [IUCN] study points out, 90% of the extra heat that our greenhouse gases trap is actually absorbed by the oceans. That means that the upper few meters of the sea have been steadily warming more than a tenth of a degree celsius per decade, a figure that’s accelerating. When you think of the volume of water that represents, and then try to imagine the energy necessary to raise its temperature, you get an idea of the blowtorch that our civilization has become. — Bill McKibben

The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with the numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend. — from the IUCN report Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences


If there’s one simple fact about past Earth climates that should keep you awake at night, it’s this — warming the world ocean eventually produces a killing mechanism that is unrivaled by any other in Earth’s deep past. Great asteroids, gamma-ray bursters, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanism — none of these can rival the vast damage to life on planet Earth that is resulting from ocean warming.

As a study of the sciences, this assertion would be merely an academic one if the human race weren’t now involved in a great injection of an unprecedented volume of greenhouse gasses into the Earth’s airs. As a critical new ocean report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, these gasses are trapping an extraordinary amount of heat at the top of the world’s atmosphere. In turn, the atmosphere is transferring the lion’s share of this heat — more than 90 percent — into the waters of our world.

The Extreme Amount of Heat Energy Piling up in Our Warming Ocean

As a result, the surface of the world ocean is warming by 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. That may not sound like much, but it takes about four times the amount of energy to warm one gram of water by 0.1 C as it does one gram of air. This property, called specific heat, is a defining aspect of water. Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.


(Since the 1970s, about 300 zettajoules’ (ZJ) worth of heat energy has accumulated in the Earth System due to fossil-fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 5 Hiroshima bombs worth of heat accumulating every second. Most of that energy has gone into the world’s oceans. So much heat is bound to have consequences, and these impacts are starting to show up in the form of declining ocean health, melting sea ice and glaciers, shifting climate zones and weather patterns, worsening droughts and storms, and threats of Earth System carbon feedbacks. Image source: Explaining Ocean Warming.)

Liquid water is also far denser than air. And this density generates an even higher impact heat energy transfer multiplier. So not only does it take four times more energy to warm a similar weight of water vs air, once warmed, that water contains that higher level of specific heat energy in a much more tightly concentrated package. And when that high heat concentration liquid water comes into contact with other substances — like ice in the form of ocean contact, or air in the form of evaporation, or frozen hydrates on the sea bed — it can pack a serious heat punch.

The vast volume of water in our oceans, therefore, serves as a kind of heat and energy regulator. It takes a lot of energy to warm it up, but once it does, serious environmental changes start to happen as a result. In other words, the temperature of the global ocean could be viewed as the point on which the whole of the Earth climate system pivots. Once the oceans are set in thermal motion, serious changes to the rest of the world are going to take place. To get an idea how much energy the oceans now contain, of how much potential they now have to dramatically alter our world, consider that if these vast waters were not present, the atmosphere now would have already warmed by 36 degrees C due to the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gasses already in our atmosphere.

Fossil-fuel blowtorch indeed.

Heating Seas Ultimately Become Killer Seas

There’s a starker message to convey here, one that focuses on this simple yet dire question — how do warming oceans kill? In basic terms, they become toxic and anoxic. Warming oceans melt ocean-contacting glaciers. The glacial melt forces seas to rise and forms a freshwater lid on the global ocean, breaking down ocean conveyor belts and preventing mixing. This freshwater lid also deflects heat toward the ocean bottom. This process in turn helps to thaw methane hydrates. Warm waters that don’t mix and that are filled with bubbling hydrates become very oxygen-poor.


(Massive algae bloom covers tens of thousands of square miles of open water in the Barents Sea during August of 2016. As glaciers melt, oceans stratify and warm; as water oxygen levels drop, and as hydrates vent due to warming, such blooms result in significant reductions to ocean health and a related global mass-extinction threat. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

As the land glaciers bleed out into the oceans, the stratified, oxygen-deprived waters become less and less able to support advanced life. The kinds of life warm, oxygen-deprived waters do support are poison-producing microbes. These microbes thrive in the warm, oxygen-poor waters. If ocean heating continues to progress, the warming seas will eventually fill up with their deadly byproducts. Among the most nasty of these is hydrogen sulfide. If enough of it is produced, it will spill out from the ocean into the nearby air, resulting in land animal mortality as well.

In microcosm, we saw a mild taste of some of these effects this past year in Florida as toxic algae blooms filled the warming state’s waterways and coastlines, even forcing some riverside marinas to close due to toxic gasses wafting up from the purple-green, oxygen-starved waters. These effects are a snapshot of a possible future for Earth’s oceans if we don’t get our act together yesterday.

El Niño Shifted, Ocean Hydrates Threatened

As alluded to earlier in this post, a new report, Explaining Ocean Warming, provides some pretty hard evidence that the oceans are on the move toward a much more harmful global climate state. The study, which has rightly received a great deal of media attention, issues a ‘shot across the bow’ warning to pretty much everyone living today. And it finds serious impacts to the ocean and linked climate systems due to a very rapid human-forced global warming.

These hard findings are worth reading directly:

  1. Sea-surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea-level rise, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations are increasing at an accelerating rate with significant consequences for humanity and the marine species and ecosystems of the ocean.
  2. There is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4 degrees C by 2100. The greatest ocean warming overall is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere and is contributing to the subsurface melting of Antarctic ice shelves. Since the 1990s the atmosphere in the polar regions has been warming at about twice the average rate of global warming.
  3. There is likely to be Arctic warming and ice loss, and possibly the essential removal, in some years, of the summer Arctic sea ice within the next few decades.
  4. Over the last 20 years there has been an intensification and distinct change in the El Niño events, with a shift of the mean location of sea-surface temperature anomalies towards the central Pacific.
  5. Currently 2.5 Gt of frozen methane hydrate are stored in the sea floor at water depths of 200 to 2000 m. Increasing water temperature could release this source of carbon into the ocean and ultimately into the atmosphere.

These are all Earth-shattering scientific statements. For those who frequent this blog, points 1 through 3 are probably pretty familiar. The last two, however, require more in-depth explanation.


(Some scientific studies have pointed out that warming the world ocean will result in a shift of El Niño toward the central Pacific. A new ocean report finds that it’s already happening. Image source: Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts.)

For a long time now, scientists have believed that El Niño wouldn’t be affected by climate change until the end of this century. But as with sea ice, it appears that such impacts may well be advancing faster than expected. As we’ve alluded to here, there’s been an apparent shift in El Niño toward the central Pacific over recent decades. This may well be a climate change-related shift. The fact that the IUCN report highlights this change is a sign that the broader sciences are starting to tackle the notion of early alterations to El Niño due to climate change as well.

However, the most ominous language here centers around methane hydrate. For years, there’s been adamant push-back against potential risks to hydrates coming from well-respected sections of the climate sciences. Nonetheless, those downplaying the threat of warming to hydrates have yet to produce any conclusive proof as to why warming the ocean bottom and applying heat to hydrates won’t result in at least some feedback from these carbon stores (especially under the higher-range warming scenarios). The IUCN report reiterates this risk by identifying 2.5 billion tons of frozen seabed methane at shallow and mid-ocean depths that will ultimately be exposed to warming — risking both an ocean and an atmospheric release.

These last points serve to underline some pretty basic facts, the chief of which is that pushing Nature, and heating up her life-blood world ocean waters, is a very, very dangerous game. And if this poignant new report sends any message at all it could simply boil down to this — turn back before it’s too late.


IUCN Report: Explaining Ocean Warming

Specific Heat

Ocean Warming

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse


Slimy Green Algae Invades Florida

The oceans are heating up. That’s a big problem on a blue planet.

Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to George Hayduke


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


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.


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




Hat Tip to Griffin

Is Human Warming Prodding A Sleeping Methane Monster off Oregon’s Coast?

We’ve talked quite a bit about the Arctic Methane Monster — the potential that a rapidly warming Arctic will force the release of disproportionately large volumes of methane from organic material locked in permafrost and in frozen sea bed hydrates composing volumes of this powerful greenhouse gas large enough to significantly increase the pace of human-forced global warming. But if we consider the globe as a whole, the Arctic isn’t the only place where large methane stores lurk — laying in wait for the heat we’ve already added to the world’s oceans and atmosphere to trigger their release. And a new study out of the University of Washington provides yet another indication that the continental shelf off Oregon and Washington may be one of many emerging methane release hot spots.

For all around the world, and beneath the broad, blue expanse of the world’s seas, rest billions and billions of tons of frozen methane hydrate.

A kind of methane and ice combination, frozen hydrate is one of the world’s most effective natural methods of trapping and sequestering carbon. Over long ages, organic material at the bottom of the oceans decompose into hydrocarbons, often breaking down into methane gas. At high pressure and low temperature, this methane gas can be locked away in a frozen water-ice hydrate lattice, which is then often buried beneath the sea bed where it can safely remain for thousands or even millions of years.


(Plume of methane bubbles rising from the sea floor off the Oregon Coast. This image shows methane bubbles originating from the sea bed about 515 meters below the surface before dissolving into the water column at about 180 meters depth. Image source: American Geophysical Union.)

Most of these deposits lay well beneath the sea bed or at extreme ocean depths of one mile or greater. And so far, human forced warming hasn’t been great enough to risk the destabilization of most of these deep ocean carbon stores. But some hydrate deposits rest in the shallower waters of continental slope systems and at depths where current warming may now be causing them to destabilize.

Scientists Think Methane Hydrates May be Destabilizing off Oregon

Enter a new study by University of Washington scientists which found “an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed.” The scientists concluded that these bubble plumes were likely evidence of methane hydrate destabilization due to a human forced warming of the water column in the range of about 500 meters of depth.

The warm waters, ironically, come from a region off Siberia where the deep waters have, over recent decades, been heated to unprecedented temperatures. These waters have, in turn, through ocean current exchange, circulated to the off-shore region of Washington and Oregon where they appear to have gone to work destabilizing methane hydrate in the continental slope zone. A paper published during 2014 hypothesized that these warm waters would have an impact on hydrates. And the new paper is the first potential confirmation of these earlier predictions.

In total about 168 methane plumes are now observed to be bubbling out of the sea bed off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Of these, 14 are located in the 500 meter depth range where ocean warming has pushed temperatures to levels at which hydrate could begin to destabilize. University of Washington researchers noted that the number of plumes at this depth range was disproportionately high, which also served as an indirect indicator that human heating may be causing this methane to release.


(Locations of methane plumes in the continental slope zone off Washington and Oregon. The location of a disproportionate number of these plumes in a zone now featuring a warming water column is an indication that the human-forced heating of ocean currents is starting to drive some methane hydrate structures to destabilize. Image source: AGU.)

Lead author H. Paul Johnson, a University of Washington professor of oceanography noted in AGU:

“So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years… What we’re seeing is possible confirmation of what we predicted from the water temperatures: Methane hydrate appears to be decomposing and releasing a lot of gas. If you look systematically, the location on the margin where you’re getting the largest number of methane plumes per square meter, it is right at that critical depth of 500 meters.””

Implications For Ocean Health, Carbon Cycle

Most methane released at this depth never reaches the atmosphere. Instead, it either oxidizes to CO2 in the water column or is converted by ocean bacteria. That said, expanding zones of methane release can rob the surrounding ocean of vital oxygen even as it can saturate the water column with carbon — increasing ocean acidification and reducing the local ocean’s ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Such a response can indirectly increase the volume of heat trapping gasses in the atmosphere by reducing the overall rate of ocean carbon uptake. In more extreme cases, methane bubbles reach the surface where they then vent directly into the atmosphere, proportionately adding to the human-produced greenhouse gasses that have already put the world into a regime of rapid warming.

It has been hypothesized that large methane releases from ocean hydrate stores contributed to past hothouse warming events and related mass extinctions like the Permian and the PETM (See A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse). But the more immediate consequences of smaller scale releases are related to declining ocean health.

According to AGU and Dr. Johnson, the study author:

Marine microbes convert the methane into carbon dioxide, producing lower-oxygen, more-acidic conditions in the deeper offshore water, which eventually wells up along the coast and surges into coastal waterways. “Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

Instances of mass sea life die-off have already occurred at a very high frequency off the Washington and Oregon Coasts. And many of these instances have been associated with a combination of low oxygen content in the near and off shore waters, increasing ocean acidification, increasing dangerous algae blooms, and an overall warming ocean system. It’s important to note that ocean acidification, though often cited in the media, is just one of many threats to ocean life and health. In many cases, low oxygen dead zones and large microbial blooms can be even more deadly. And in the most extreme low oxygen regions, the water column can start to fill up with deadly hydrogen sulfide gas — a toxic substance that, at high enough concentrations, kills off pretty much all oxygen-based life (See Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans).

During recent years, mass sea life deaths have been linked to a ‘hot blob’ forming in nearby waters (See Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?). However, indicators of low oxygen in the waters near Washington and Oregon have been growing in frequency since the early 2000s. Though the paper does not state this explicitly — increasing rates of methane release in the off-shore waters due to hydrate destabilization may already be contributing to declining ocean health in the region.

Slope Collapse, Conditions in Context

A final risk associated with methane hydrate destabilization in the continental slope zone is an increased prevalence of potential slope collapse. As methane hydrate releases, it can deform the sea bed structures within slope systems. Such systems become less stable, increasing the potential for large underwater landslides. Not only could these large landslides displace significant volumes of water or even set off tsunamis, slope collapse events also risk uncovering and exposing more hydrate systems to the warming ocean in a kind of amplifying feedback.

In context, the total volume of methane being released into the off-shore environment is currently estimated to be about 0.1 million metric tons each year. That’s about the same rate of hydrocarbon release seen from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. A locally large release but still rather small in size compared to the whopping 10+ billion tons of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere each year through human fossil fuel burning. However, this release is widespread, uncontrolled, un-cappable and, if scientists are correct in their indications of a human warming influence, likely to continue to increase as the oceans warm further.


Bubble Plumes off Washington and Oregon Suggest Warmer Ocean May be Releasing Frozen Methane

Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Warming Oceans May be Spewing Methane off US West Coast

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release

Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Mass Whale Death in Northeast Pacific — Hot Blob’s Record Algae Bloom to Blame?

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

Hat tip to Humortra

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









Triggers to Release the Methane Monster: Sea Ice Retreat, Ocean Warming and Anoxia, Fires, Sea Level Rise and The Fresh Water Wedge

Perhaps the most hotly debated topic among climate scientists, when they are not facing off with the ignorance of underhanded climate change deniers, is the potential rate of Earth Systems response to human caused climate change. In general, the low hanging fruit of climate research is a more easy to puzzle out pace of likely warming due to the direct forcing of human greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions and the more rapid climate feedback coming from increasing water vapor due to increased evaporation. But higher up the tree hang the critical fruits of pace of albedo change and pace of carbon response as the Earth System warms. Understanding these two will provide a much greater clarity to the question of a long term rate of warming given a doubling of atmospheric CO2.

Paleoclimate, Paleoclimate, and Paleoclimate

Perhaps the best way to test the accuracy of our long-term Earth Systems global warming and climate models is to use temperature proxy data from past ages in Earth’s history. And, based on these proxy measures, we find that the long term warming from each doubling of CO2 is at least 6 degrees Celsius. Though the proxies are not perfect, they are in general agreement on a range of potentials averaging near this figure. And these measurements can provide some confidence that the total long-term warming from a doubling of CO2 is at least twice that caused by a CO2 increase and the related water vapor rise alone.

More accurate measures closer to the current day are even less reassuring. Looking at the ice-age and interglacial transitions over the last 500,000 years, we find that a very small forcing provided by orbital changes, resulting in a global increase in solar insolation of about .5 Watts per meter squared combined with changes in the angle at which sunlight hits the Earth (Milankovitch Cycles), is enough to, over the long term, increase CO2 levels by 100 ppm (from 180 to about 280), increase methane levels by about 300 parts per billion (ppb) and (here’s the stunning kicker) raise world temperatures by a whopping 5 degrees Celsius globally and 13 degrees Celsius at the poles.

Changes in Temperature and Methane Concentration

Changes in Temperature and Methane Concentration

(Image source: NASA)

A Human Forcing Six Times Greater Than That Which Ended the Last Ice Age

It should be a serious concern to climate scientists that the initial forcing of just .5 Watts per meter squared resulted in a relatively moderate 100 ppm CO2 and 300 ppb methane response which then combined to force temperatures radically higher. By comparison, the current human emission of 120 ppm CO2 and 1100 ppb CH4 (methane) and rising, combine with other human greenhouse gasses such as Nitrous Oxide, Tropospheric Ozone (human emission), Clorofluorocarbons and Halons to provide an initial forcing of fully 3 Watts per meter squared or about 6 times the total forcing that resulted in the last ice age’s end and ultimately set in place feedbacks that pushed global temperatures 5 degrees hotter (Data source: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations).

Earth’s Own Carbon Stocks are Vast

So why was so small an initial solar forcing enough to end an ice age and, ultimately warm the poles by 13 degrees (C) and the globe by 5 degrees C and what does this mean when the human forcing is now at least six times greater?

In short, the Earth holds vast stores of carbon in the form of CO2 in its oceans, organic carbon in its tundra and frozen beneath land ice, and in very large stores of methane hydrates on the sea bed. Any forcing that is large or occurs over a very long period of time will act continuously on these sources, pushing more and more of the carbon out until all of the stores newly exposed to that forcing are emitted, the feedback warming kicks in, Earth albedo changes as ice sheets respond (also a source of additional heat), and Earth gradually reaches a new energy equilibrium state.

In the current day, melting tundra (both land and ocean) in the Northern Hemisphere holds about 1,500 gigatons of carbon (NSIDC), the oceans contain between 2,000 and 14,000 gigatons of methane hydrate (USGS), and these same oceans hold about 1,000 gigatons of carbon (CO2) in solution near the surface and 38,000 gigatons of carbon near the sea floor (University of New Hampshire: Global Carbon Pools/Fluxes).

USGS Methane Hydrate

USGS Methane Hydrate

Melting tundra releases its carbon stores as CO2 in an aerobic/oxygen environment and as methane in an anaerobic and anoxic environment. Thawing methane hydrates release methane into the oceans of which some enters the atmosphere. And warming oceans eventually are unable to uptake a rising level of atmospheric CO2 and, in extreme cases, begin emitting CO2 back into the atmosphere.

When compared to the gentle, though long term, nudge to the Earth’s carbon stocks generated by orbital changes and a slight increase in solar insolation that ended the last ice age, the human forcing equates to a very great and rude shove. And if that much more gentle nudge was enough to liberate 100 ppm and 300 ppb of methane from the Earth system into the Earth’s atmosphere, then how much will the now much faster and harsher human forcing put at risk of liberation?

Methane Release Sources in the Arctic

That human greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly warming the Earth at a rate of about .2 degrees Celsius per decade and that carbon emissions from the Earth environment are likely to increasingly result from this rapid and rising rate of warming is a given. At issue is how fast and powerful an Earth systems response will be. And one critical issue in understanding the speed of this potential response is rate of methane release (CO2 release is another issue that will be explored in another blog).

Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Over twenty years time, it estimated to produce about 105 times the forcing of a similar volume of CO2 (this value is estimated to be about 25 times a similar volume of CO2 over 100 years time). So large pulses of this gas could result in a doubling or more of the total greenhouse gas forcing already acting on the Earth system. Such catastrophic releases are hypothesized to have acted during other periods of rapid warming such as during the PETM and Permian hyperthermals.

The above, admittedly lengthy preamble, is needed to give context to this specific issue: potentially large methane releases as a result of Arctic warming and a number of related release mechanisms that may increasingly come into play. However, before we drill down to mechanisms, let’s look at the disposition of potential Arctic methane sources to give us a basis for our degree of concern.

Thawing Arctic Permafrost, as mentioned above, provides a source of 1,500 gigatons of carbon, some of which will be released as methane as it melts to liberate its carbon stores to surface, subterranean, and subsea environments. Some of this permafrost is land-based, some of it is submerged, as on the East Siberian Arctic shelf. As the permafrost thaws, decay and release of this carbon into the atmosphere is likely to gradually build, providing a growing pool of both methane and carbon emissions. That said, a climate change establishes a number of environmental mechanisms created that are likely to result in greater and greater volumes of this store being released over time. These mechanisms may push methane in a slow and gradual way. But, as we proceed down the dangerous path of rapid human-caused warming, there is increasing danger of large, sudden releases.

In addition, the same expanding set of environmental changes could result in a higher percentage of this vast store being emitted as methane.

Stable Sea Bed Clathrates represent an unknown portion that is likely a majority of the estimated 500-2,000 gigatons of methane hydrates in the Arctic environment. These clathrates compose methane locked in ice lattice structures that occur around 200 meters below the sea bed. Release of these clathrates requires a heat forcing to not only penetrate into the ocean waters, but for it to also reach the clathrates below hundreds of feet of rock and mud. Once the clathrates are disassociated, they must travel through cracks in the rocks and mud, and then through the water column to reach the ocean surface and the atmosphere. On the way, some of the liberated methane dissolves in sea water and another portion is taken in by methane eating organisms. If the pulse is strong enough, the ocean water saturated enough, and the methane eating organisms sparse enough, a greater portion of this released methane will reach the surface.

Ice Age Relics are clathrates that have formed as shallow as 20 meters beneath the sea floor. They are thought to have formed under the glacial cold that encased the Arctic over the last 2 million years and that occurred with particular intensity over the last 800,000 years. These ice age depositions are particularly vulnerable to more rapid release and their expansion during the last glacial period results in a set of carbon stocks that are very vulnerable to rapid emission. In this case, we find yet one more reason why a rapid rise out of a period of glaciation is a rather dangerous climate circumstance. The deposition of carbon stores are placed in regions more vulnerable to thaw and release once warming is underway.

In sum, these three represent a majority of potential methane release sources.

Rumors of Fire: The East Siberian Arctic Shelf Emission

(Please ignore the cheesy intro music and proceed on to the interview)

During the 1990s, researchers noticed a methane overburden in atmospheric regions around the Arctic Circle. This overburden was seen as an indication that large local methane emissions were occurring in the Arctic. Subsequent research found methane emissions from thawing Arctic tundra, from melt lakes and from peat bogs. In addition a large emission source was identified in the Arctic Ocean.

As of 2010, reports were coming in from the Arctic that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf was emitting more methane than the entire Earth ocean system combined. By 2011, an expedition to the Arctic found methane emission sources more than 1 kilometer across over the same region of submerged permafrost. By 2012, expeditions could no longer be conducted on the ice surface in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf due to the fact that the sea ice there had become too thin and unstable to support research equipment.

Dr. Natalia Shakhova and Dr. Igor Similetov found that the permafrost cap over the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf seabed had become perforated. The cap locks a very large volume of methane, estimated to be about 500 gigatons, under constant cold and pressure. As the cap perforates, the cold and pressure release and increasing volumes of methane shoot up from the sea bed saturating the water with methane with some of the methane releasing to the surface.

Shakhova and Similetov warn that 1 percent or more of this methane could release over the course of decades as the sea ice continues to erode in the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and the undersea permafrost continues to perforate. Just a 1 percent release would be enough to double the amount of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a .5 watt per meter squared forcing from an ESAS release alone. The researchers also identify the potential for a much larger, 50 gigaton release, which would more than double the current human GHG forcing over the course of just a few decades.

Such a large potential release was the subject of a much-debated Nature article by Peter Wadhams (read more here). And it was this article that raised the question of potential mechanisms that could result in such large releases of methane from the Arctic in the coming years.

The Arctic Under Heat: Ever More Powerful Mechanisms For Release

In examining potential release methane release mechanisms we will start with those currently acting on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and work our way outward to the greater Arctic environment. It is worth noting that a paper by Carolyn Ruppel recently refuted Shakhova and Similetov’s findings, but that the Ruppel paper did not study the region of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf in question, only a related area of the Beaufort Sea which has not been found to currently show large, powerful, or widespread methane hydrate release.

East Siberian Sea

East Siberian Sea

(Image source: Commons)

Taking the Ice Lid off of a Shallow Sea. In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, rapidly warming air and ocean combine with rapidly retreating sea ice to create what seems to be a powerful and concerning release mechanism. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a 2 million square kilometer region that composes some of the Arctic’s densest carbon stores. It represents about 1/5 the Arctic Ocean area and is thought to contain about 500 gigatons of shallow sea bed methane hydrates. Over the past few decades, this region has warmed very rapidly, at the rate of about .5 degrees Celsius every ten years. This warming, at about 2.5 times the global rate, has resulted in a very rapid weakening and retreat of sea ice from the surface waters of a shallow sea that is, on average, about 50 meters deep. In recent years, summer sea ice has almost completely retreated from the ESAS, leaving a dark ocean surface to absorb sunlight and to rapidly warm. Measurements from the region show that water temperatures have increased by as much as 7 degrees Celsius above average once the sea ice pulls away. With the ice now gone, surface winds provide great mobility and mixing of the water column, this results in much of the surface water heating being transported down to the seabed. It also draws methane rich waters up from below where they can contact the air and release some of the water-stored methane.

Shakhova and Simeletov have observed perforations of the subsea permafrost releasing large volumes of methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf since 2008 and, as noted above, many of the hydrates stored beneath this permafrost cap are far shallower than is typical for a normal ocean seabed due to the fact that they are ice age relics. This combination of mechanisms provides the greatest current risk for rapid methane release. However, a number of other mechanisms are increasingly coming into play that may add to the, already concerning set of risks for rapid ESAS methane release.

Melting Tundra, Hot Lakes and Arctic Wildfires. NSIDC has identified about 1,500 gigatons of organic carbon locked in tundra systems throughout the Arctic. As the Arctic is forced to rapidly warm, larger and larger portions of this vast carbon store begin to thaw. Once the tundra melts, this carbon is subject to breakdown and action by microbes. This process of decay releases CO2 in dry environments and methane in wet, anoxic environments. Much of the tundra melt is subterranean. As such, this tundra melt is locked away in moist pockets that have little access to airflow. These pockets are at risk of being broken down into methane by anaerobic microbes. In some sections, tundra collapses and fills with water to form melt lakes. These lakes contact the anaerobic melt regions and create their own anaerobic bottom systems for carbon breakdown and release. Many of these lakes are so hot with methane that they provide emissions with high enough concentration to burn.

As the Arctic experiences more and more heatwaves, a far greater expanse of this extreme northern region is subject to wildfires. These fires are increasingly found to have burned deep into the soil. Reports from the Arctic find that fires have incinerated as many as 50% of the stumps of trees in a wildfire zone and consumed the carbon rich soil to a layer as deep as 3 feet below the surface. The action of wildfires further breaks open the soil and tundra cap providing passages to release any methane stored in anaerobic pockets beneath.

With these tundra regions composing so large a volume of carbon and with these areas being subject to increasingly rapid melting and increasingly energetic wildfires, larger and larger methane releases are entirely likely.

Ocean Warming, Anoxia, and the Fresh Water Wedge. As the years and decades progress and Arctic sea ice becomes more scarce, there is an increasing risk of large freshwater melt pulses from Greenland to combine with a warming Arctic Ocean to further amplify methane release. With the increasing removal of sea ice, Arctic Ocean temperatures surge, spreading a wider and wider area of heat forcing deeper and deeper into the water column and, eventually, into the seabed itself.

Some of this warming is visible in climate models projecting temperature and precipitation change throughout the Arctic over coming decades:

Projected temperature and precipitation change above the Arctic Circle.

Projected temperature and precipitation change above the Arctic Circle.

(Image source: Climate State)

A warmer Arctic Ocean is a less oxygen rich environment. The heat reduces the oxygen in solution, creating more anaerobic environments for organic carbon to break down as methane. Warmth also creates a greater sea-bed forcing for spontaneous and long-term release of methane hydrates.

As the seas surrounding Greenland warm and the Greenland environment takes in more of this latent heat, Greenland melt rates will continue to increase. The large fresh water pulses from Greenland will push the Gulf Stream further and further south, reducing the mixing of seawater in and near the Arctic, further reducing oxygen levels. These pulses will also act as a wedge, forcing warmer, saltier waters to dive down toward the ocean bottom as a fresh water cap expands from the Arctic Ocean southward (see Does Fresh Water Runoff Change Ocean Circulation to Unlock Deepwater Hydrates?). This mechanism will create a cool surface, hot depths ocean environment for the Arctic Ocean and northern latitude regions surrounding it.  Additional fresh water is likely to come from the continents as rates of precipitation increase, further adding to the fresh water cap and the creation of a growing region of stratified ocean with cooler, fresh water at the surface and a growing pool of warmer water below.

Unfortunately, large freshwater additions from melting snowcover and increasingly severe rainfall events, like the massive Yakutia floods have already resulted in changes to Arctic Ocean circulation, creating a large freshwater cap near the Beaufort and resulting in the risk of fresh water pulses entering the Pacific Ocean. A NASA animation shows how these changes are already ongoing:

And we have also noticed a great increase in ocean bottom heat content concentrated near the polar regions.

Thus we have three factors acting in concert to increase methane release. First, sea ice retreats to warm the Arctic Ocean. Second, increasing freshwater inflows divert the warmer waters toward the ocean bottom. Third, the warmer waters are less oxygen rich, creating more anoxic environments for anaerobic bacteria to break down organic carbon from thawing permafrost into methane. These anaerobes will receive plenty of nutrients from the waters washing off of glaciers and continents and will likely create great blooms over large areas as seas continue to warm. These combined forcing mechanisms will likely destabilize the weakest methane hydrate reserves first even as the anaerobes go to work on the newly liberated organic carbon.

Sea Level Rise Floods Large Regions of Tundra. A final mechanism for methane release is the rise of a less oxygenated Arctic Ocean to flood large sections of coastal tundra in Siberia, putting it under water and in an oxygen poor environment in which anaerobic bacteria can act to convert organic carbon into methane. A wide swath of coastal Siberia is low lying and, in some cases, is vulnerable to sea level rise for tens or even hundreds of kilometers inland. Over the years, larger sections of this region will be claimed by the sea, adding their carbon stores to an oxygen poor ocean bottom region.

Together, a rapidly destabilizing ESAS, a rapidly retreating ice sheet, increasing Arctic Ocean anoxia, increasing fresh water runoff into the Arctic Ocean, numerous anoxic environments within tundra thaw regions, increasingly energetic wildfires, expanding regions of stratified waters with hot ocean bottoms and cooler ocean surfaces, and seas rising to flood areas of thawing tundra provide sufficient and numerous mechanisms to be seriously concerned about Arctic methane release as an amplifier and potential multiplier to human caused warming.


Milankovitch Cycles

NASA: Changes in Methane Concentration

CDAIC: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations

NSIDC: It’s All About Frozen Ground

USGS: Methane Hydrates

University of New Hampshire: Global Carbon Pools/Fluxes

Nature: The Vast Costs of Arctic Change

Does Fresh Water Runoff Change Ocean Circulation to Unlock Deepwater Hydrates?

A Looming Climate Shift: Will Ocean Heat Come Back to Haunt US?

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet: Heinrich Events, Superstorms, and Warming the Deep Ocean

“Think of the climate change issue as a closet, and behind the door are lurking all kinds of monsters — and there’s a long list of them,” — Steve Pacala.


It has been said that Nature is a serial killer. Within her vast managerie of life, climate, and the physical world, there are many, many terrible processes that could mortally impact individuals, larger groups, entire species and even families of species. And if you were to look for the means by which Nature performs her worst violence, the mass extinction events, your eyes would almost immediately settle upon the uncomfortable issue of climate change, an issue all too relevant today.

Of twelve major mass extinction events identified in past geological epochs, ten were likely caused by climate change. Marked by layers of rocks almost entirely devoid of complex life, these periods in which Earth became little more than a tomb should serve as a stark warning against our own rapidly increasing insults to Earth’s climate. The very worst of these ‘tomb epochs,’ the Permain or ‘Great Dying’ in which 90 percent of all species went extinct was clearly caused by a series of worsening insults brought on by a terrible switch in climate brought on by a raging global warming nightmare. And though the Permian Extinction raged about 200 million years ago, it has some rather disturbing similarities to today. For one, it was an era in which a cold glacial period emerged into a far warmer period. And secondly, a large greenhouse gas emission source forced warming to drastically accelerate resulting in not one but three major extinction crises over the course of about 165,000 years. It was the worst of the worst of all tomb epochs and it was most likely set off by a massive chain of events brought on by very rapid warming.

Scattered across the wreckage of the Permian and these other tomb epochs are the foot prints of the three climate monsters from Pacala’s horde that we most definitely do not want to unleash. Monsters we are through our current actions and choices, even now, causing to stir.

Three to Keep Behind the Door

Human beings, through their carbon emissions, risk prodding the very worst monsters in Nature’s death brigade to awaken — the ones that set off previous mass extinction events through a combination of terrible weather, unleashing carbon stocks sequestered over millions of years, and, eventually, turning the ocean into an enormous killing machine. These three, worst of the worst, climate monsters which we most certainly want to keep behind Pacala’s door are: Heinrich Events, Rapid CO2 and Methane release, and Anoxic and Canfield Oceans. Though these three are identified here as separate catastrophic events, they are related in that they can set in motion a chain of self-reinforcing effects that may enhance the likelihood for the other events to occur. They also unleash a set of more minor but still terrible associated difficulties.

In this particular blog, I’ll explore the first and arguably mildest of these catastrophes — Heinrich Events.

Pulses of De-glaciation

As Earth moved through its far more milder, nature-caused, phases of glaciation and deglaciation, previous warm phases often resulted in sudden surges of ice burgs and melt flows from the Earth’s ice sheets. Large pulses during warm trends set off armadas of these maritime brutes which flooded the ocean, causing drastic consequences to weather and climate.

The ice bergs unleashed during these warming-induced pulse events were enormous floating collections of rock and ice. As they melted, the glaciers disgorged the rocks frozen in their bellies, leaving layers of pebbles littering the sea floor and creating a record of their passage. Hartmut Heinrich was the first to describe these events. So now they bear his name.

Greenland and West Antarctica: Gateways For the Heinrich Monsters

In the emergence from the last ice age, it is thought that sudden melt pulses from the vast but now entirely melted Laurentide ice sheet resulted in the majority of these events. Since only the ghost of this ice sheet remains in the form of a thin patina of frozen tundra over the Northern Hemisphere’s Arctic regions, there is no longer any risk for Heinrich melt and ice burg pulse events from this now ephemeral source.

But the great Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets remain. Greenland is a vast store of ice. Nearly two miles high at its center, it contains enough ice to raise the world’s sea levels by 23 feet. West Antarctica is yet one more great pile of ice. In total, if the two were to melt together, they could contribute as much as 75 feet of sea level rise.

But these melt events, as we see the in the geological past, don’t happen neatly. The great glaciers sit mostly still for long, boring periods and then they surge in brief, catastrophic instances unleashing massive flows of both water and ice bergs. Heinrich Events.

Alone or together, Greenland and Antarctica bear more than enough ice to set off this particularly nasty brand of climate induced catastrophe.

The Human Forcing is Far More Brutal

In the past, a slower build up of heat set off by the warm phase of gradual orbital cycles eventually passed tipping points that led to rapid ice sheet disintegration and related melt-pulse Heinrich Events. Today, the human greenhouse gas forcing is far, far more powerful. At the last ice age’s end, a combined forcing of about 100 parts per million of additional CO2 and the steady but ever so slight forcing caused by the warmer orbital cycle was enough to set off these powerful events. Today, CO2 has risen by 120 ppm and continues to rise by 2-3 parts per million each year even as other rising greenhouse gasses, primarily methane, add an additional 28% to this strong and growing forcing.

It could easily be argued that the human forcing surpassed that of a natural forcing powerful enough to end an ice age sometime last century. But the ice age is already done and so we head into mostly uncharted territory only vaguely hinted at in the deep geological past. The current pace and path of increased forcing makes a bad situation worse as a CO2 rise to at least 480 ppm is predicted by mid-century. Business as usual end century estimates come in at the catastrophic level of 800 ppm or more of atmospheric CO2 with an unknown additional amount of methane and related greenhouse gasses.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is Starting to Slip

Unfortunately, it seems we may have already begun to let one Heinrich monster off its leash. For reports coming in over the past decade show that the vast two mile high Greenland ice sheet is starting to slip.

Under the current and ever-rising insult of the human climate change forcing, the Greenland ice sheet is sagging and deforming, filling with melt ponds and flows that flush through to its base, and, most ominously, monstrously grinding toward the ocean at an ever increasing pace. Research conducted by Arctic scientists shows that the ice sheet’s speed is increasing by a rate of about 2-3 percent per year. This speed of increase results in the disgorging of vast volumes of ice burgs and melt waters into the North Atlantic. An average of about 500 cubic kilometers of ice bergs and melt waters are now flowing into the ocean from Greenland alone. But with the pace of ice sheet melt and movement picking up, we are, sadly, only at the beginning of what appears to be a very risky situation.

Flotillas of Icebergs Riding a Tsunami Like Melt Pulse

Let’s step back for a minute from this slow motion disaster that we’re both the cause of and captive audience to and consider, for a moment, the structure of Greenland’s ice and land mass. The Greenland coastline is little more than a honeycomb of semi-frozen channels both coming into contact with the larger water bodies of Baffin Bay and the North Atlantic and drilling deep into the interior of Greenland itself. The two mile high glacier slopes gradually down toward and into these hundreds of channel estuaries, creating a slope defined by tall ice sheets terminating in low, ocean-opening waterways.

Greenland -- where ice meets ocean

Greenland — where ice meets ocean.

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above image, you can see just one section of these ice channels that encompass almost the entire coastline of Greenland. Note the dark ocean water coming into contact with the silver-white of Greenland ice. The small white flecks you can see in this Modis shot are nothing less than immense ice burgs riding the winds and tides out into the North Atlantic. If you accurately imagine the entire coast of Greenland perforated by such outlets, what you come to realize is that Greenland is nothing less than an enormous ice burg dispersal mechanism. One that, if it really cranks up, will disgorge vast flotillas of ice bergs riding out upon tsunami-like melt pulses in every direction.

Inherent to this potential is the fact that Greenland ice is continuously in motion. Pulled by gravity, the towering ice sheets constantly seek the sea. Slowly grinding away, the ice moves gradually, steadily until it, at last, finds water, there it explodes in a riotous calving of the immense and monstrous ice burgs. The more solid and cold Greenland becomes, the slower its ice moves toward the ocean. The ice sheet weight increases, depressing the entire island into the crustal plate and keeping more of its ice locked in the center. The ice forms more solid boundaries to other ice flows and the ice grinding slows as it thickens. But the more wet and warm the ice becomes, the opposite is true. Water flows through the ice sheet to lubricate its base, the large pools of water on top further heat and deform the ice, the crustal plates rebound, pushing the island higher and adding gravity as a more and more powerful force attracting ice to ocean, and increasingly large pulses of melt water flush out from the center of the glaciers, drawing both ice and water along in ever greater volumes toward the ocean.

In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice dams may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast flotillas of icebergs, greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere. But the Southern Hemisphere has its own set of troubles to contemplate. For there resides the seemingly endless pile of ice that is Antarctica.

Storms of My Grandchildren

A long time ago, I read a book called “The Coming Global Superstorm.” The book trivialized the potential effects of Heinrich Events by lumping them into a myopic and artificial single instance that the authors referred to as a Superstorm. The book was also chock full of astrological New Age jargon and other unrelated philosophy that greatly discredited the authors’ notion of Superstorm. Even worse, Hollywood jumped onto the trivialization bandwagon by producing the entirely unrealistic movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

About this New Age book and its related Hollywood film, I have but one thing to say — if only it were so easy. Both the book and the movie boil the risk of human caused global warming into a single, linear event, which ends in single results. Even worse, both the book and the movie produce the false impression that such storms will result in an ice age. Again, if only it were so easy.

If you want to learn about the potential involved in such events, you should become a student of climate scientist James Hansen. You could start by reading the excellent book “Storms of My Grandchildren” and you could continue by reading his papers pertaining to extreme weather caused by West Antarctic and Greenland Ice melt.

What Hansen describes in his later work is the potential for ‘continent sized frontal storms packing the punch of hurricanes’ to rip across vast swaths of the Northern Hemisphere in association with an extreme weather pattern set up by a Heinrich type event acting in combination with a human warming induced heat amplification of the tropics. In vast difference to the “Day After Tomorrow,” these storms are not single instances, but potentially re-occurring catastrophic weather hazards.

How bad could these storms get? As an example, the freak hybrid superstorm Sandy is but a prelude to the main events.

Sandy Arctic Arm

Sandy’s Arctic Arm

Yet Sandy’s somewhat unique hybrid structure and location may well provide us with hints as to the nature of future superstorm events. What we see in the above NOAA satellite shot is a storm that is linked both in the tropics and in the Arctic. The storm derives energy from a cold air mass over Greenland and pulls in another ‘arm’ of energy from the tropical Atlantic.

During the Heinrich event, the ice berg cooling effect mentioned by Hansen in his papers and the human caused heat amplification of the tropics will set up a far more disastrous atmospheric storm potential. And the raking effect of continent sized frontal storm systems would have even more damaging consequences to human infrastructure than the related pulse of sea level rise alone.

Ocean Circulation Change to Open the Door for the Hydrate Monster, Anoxic/Canfield Oceans?

Yet one more ominous result of Heinrich Events is a high-stress shock to ocean temperature and saline circulation systems. Such events are likely to shove the northern termination of larger ocean systems further toward the equator. The cold, fresh water pulses would result in less sinking of water at the poles. Related increased heat at the tropics would begin to set up a system where salty waters begin to sink there.

Even more ominously, a wedge of cold water at the surface spreading out from the poles would push hotter, saltier water toward the ocean bottom. Fresh water is less dense than salty water, so the fresh water pulses from glaciers and melting ice bergs will act as a wedge, driving the denser, warmer, saltier water toward the bottom The net effect of such changes would be a shallower and weaker ocean circulation system as more warm water is averted toward the ocean bottom near the equator and then spreads northward and as warmer surface waters toward the poles and temperature regions are driven toward the sea-bed.

Since vast stores of methane lay locked in hydrates on the sea bed, these stores are at risk of greater forcing and more rapid destabilization. To note, the end of the Permian, in which a partially glaciated world transitioned to a hot house, is estimated to have seen methane levels at around 11 parts per million — almost ten times the current level. Large melt pulses are, therefore, a potential mechanism for ocean bottom heating and increasing rates of methane release.

This event sets in place conditions that increase risk for the two other climate monsters — increasing CO2 and methane release from Earth Systems and the perhaps more ugly anoxic and Canfield Ocean states. And both we will visit in future blogs.

How Soon?

How soon could we see Heinrich type events, Hansen-style superstorms, and dangerous changes to ocean circulation? Hansen, in “Storms of My Grandchildren” indicates a risk for such events emerging by mid-century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions. Jason Box and others have shown an increasing speed and melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet occurring during the first and second decades of the 21rst Century. So it appears we are starting to ramp up to such events even now as an ominous ice sheet response begins to show on the climate radar. So the period of risk appears to be sometime between now (low) through 2070 (moderate to high depending on human CO2 forcing growth or mitigation).

That paleoclimate and modeling performed by Hansen show the potential for such powerful events should be cause for serious concern and reason for ever-greater urgency in reducing human greenhouse gas emissions and our related climate risk to the lowest levels possible. And, in the end, we almost certainly do not want to begin to bring forward conditions that will release the other two ‘monsters behind the door’ — rapid CO2 and methane response from Earth Systems and anoxic and Canfield Oceans.


Storms of My Grandchildren

Under a Green Sky

Global Heating Accelerates, Deep Ocean Warming Fastest; What Does it Mean For Methane Hydrates?

A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that ocean heat content rose at its fastest rate ever recorded over the past 15 years. The study, written by Magdalena A. Balmaseda, Kevin E. Trenberth, and Erland Kallen, found that the deep ocean below 700 meters accounted for 30% of all global heat content increase over the past decade.

What this means is that total warming of the atmosphere-ocean system didn’t slow down as some global warming denier sources claim. Instead, total Earth warming accelerated.

According to the paper, the most recent period since 1999 was:

the most sustained warming trend in this record of OHC. Indeed, recent warming rates of the waters below 700m appear to be unprecedented. In the last decade, about 30% of the warming has occurred below 700 m, contributing significantly to an acceleration of the warming trend.

Over the past decade, La Nina events have predominated. And this, according to study authors, resulted in a large portion of global warming being retained in the oceans. The reason is that El Nino is a powerful mechanism of ocean heat transfer to the atmosphere. But over the past decade, El Nino events have been rare, keeping more human caused heating in the world’s oceans. Not only did upper levels of the ocean heat up, a massive amount of global warming telegraphed into the deepest regions of world ocean systems.

According to Keven Trenberth, one of the study’s authors and a leading climate scientist, “It means less short term warming at the surface but at the expense of a greater earlier long-term warming, and faster sea level rise.”

The reason is that rapidly warming oceans pump more water vapor into the atmosphere. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas and a major amplifying feedback to human caused warming. In addition, rapidly warming waters leads to greater thermal expansion of the world’s oceans, accelerating sea level rise.

Bad News For Methane Hydrates

More rapid ocean heating also has another impact not directly mentioned in the new study. What it does is put more of the world’s deposits of methane hydrates at risk of destabilization.

Methane hydrate is a volatile mixture of methane and frozen water that can be found on seabeds around the world. It is estimated that as much as 10,000 gigatons of carbon lay locked in methane hydrate deposits around the globe. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Over a century, it is 20 times more powerful by volume than CO2. Over ten years, it is 100 times more potent. Methane is also problematic because after it amplifies warming as methane, it then breaks down into CO2, adding to already high volumes of that gas. Were even a small fraction of this carbon to bubble up from the ocean bottom and reach the atmosphere, it would result in a powerful amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.

Over the past decade, instances of methane hydrate destabilization have been found in the Arctic, off the east coast of the United States, and in other regions around the globe. Many of these events appeared to be new. Of these, methane plumes found in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf were the most disturbing. There, plumes of methane a kilometer across were discovered. Though submerged tundra was also a likely contributor to massive methane plumes discovered on the shelf, hydrates are also known to have formed there.

Now, with oceans heating at a greater rate than the atmosphere, risks for large methane hydrate releases are also increasing.

Most Missing Heat Found, Look to Ice Sheets for Remainder

This new research finds most of the missing heat scientists have been looking for around the globe. And that heat, as previously suspected, ended up in the world’s oceans and, to great extent, in the deep oceans. That said, a much smaller measure of heat is still unaccounted for. It might not be a bad idea to look in the world’s ice sheets — which appear to be decaying at a much faster rate than expected. One speculates that the hearts of the great glaciers are more watery than anticipated and contain much of the remaining heat from human caused global warming not currently located.


In Hot Water: Global Warming Has Accelerated Over Past 15 Years, New Study of Oceans Confirms

Winter 2013 Shows Increasing Arctic Methane Feedback to Human Caused Warming

Oceans Sponging Up Warmth

Arctic Methane Release Sea Ice Melt Shows Amplifying Feedbacks to Human Caused Climate Change


Japan’s Quest For Methane Hydrates and Climate Change Game Over

Methane Hydrate

(Methane hydrate deposits around the world. Image Source: US Geological Survey)

What’s more dangerous than a Fukushima reactor meltdown? The Japanese quest to exploit methane hydrates.

Ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant dangerously and spectacularly melted down in 2011, Japan has been on a quest to find reliable energy sources that safely replace nuclear power. One of these prospective sources is methane hydrates. Yet, in attempting to transition from nuclear energy to methane hydrate, Japan is simply trading one dangerous and unpredictable energy resource for another.

Methane hydrates are a form of methane mixed with frozen water that rest in vast deposits on the sea bed. It is thought that these deposits are double the current estimate for all other forms of fossil fuels. And since scientists estimate two thirds of currently available fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to keep global warming below dangerous levels (levels that Hurricane Sandy victims would argue are dangerous now), the addition of methane hydrates to that mix would almost certainly worsen an already dark global warming picture.

Yet, just this week, Japan announced that it had successfully extracted methane hydrates from the sea floor for the first time and that it intends to begin commercial extraction of this carbon intensive energy source within 5 years.

A High Cost, Unstable Fuel For Desperate Times

The costs of methane hydrate extraction are still very high. So high, in fact, that serious doubts remain that the supply can be extracted commercially.

Yet Japanese government seems hell bent to exploit the resource, ignoring both costs and risks. Japan’s options were limited after Fukyshima and it appears desperate to access any new resource, no matter how costly or volatile.

According to reports from the Financial Times, Ryo Minami, director of the oil and gas division of Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources, compared the effort to exploit methane hydrate to America’s fracking of shale gas. “Ten years ago, everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly. Yet now it’s commercialised,” he said.

It is true that the US exploited shale gas at serious cost and risk to water supplies and increased methane leaks. It is also true that a number of countries which consider shale gas too dangerous a resource have banned it. France, for example, which relies heavily on nuclear power won’t touch shale gas. The reason includes a serious risk of climate change that makes the disaster resulting from Fukushima seem minor by comparison.

Climate Change Game Over


(Sea-bed hydrate turning into gas. Image source: Motherboard)

One wonders why Japan isn’t instead pushing for greater adoption of renewable energy supplies instead of seeking to exploit ever more dangerous and expensive reserves of fossil fuel. Tapping yet another unconventional fossil fuel resource that would make dealing with human caused global warming all the more difficult.

So far, 880 gigatons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. Together, methane hydrates and all the remaining fossil fuels represent a potential to dump 15,000 gigatons more carbon into an already stressed environment. Such an exploitation would likely take more than a century to complete. However, once finished, the extraction and burning of all that fossil fuel would result in world CO2 levels soaring to over 2000 ppm. Such levels would almost certainly set off runaway global warming.

Even worse, methane hydrates are very volatile, subject to explosive destabilization. So mining the resource from the sea-bed would likely result in a substantial portion being released as methane as part of the extraction process. Such methane releases could strip oxygen from the local marine environment. In large releases, methane would bubble up into the atmosphere adding yet another greenhouse gas to the global warming problem.

Exploitation of Methane Hydrates Unsustainable

Considering greenhouse gas emissions need to begin declining now to preserve a livable climate for human civilizations, Japan’s plans to exploit methane hydrates are unwise even in the best of cases. Japan’s significant economy would be better off investing in alternatives such as wind and solar energy as well as building on current battery-based vehicle fleets to push PHEVs and EVs for the Japanese market.

Methane hydrates represent an expensive climate dead end for Japan and the global economy. Hopefully, Japan will reconsider before the world is shackled to yet another costly and dangerous unconventional fossil fuel resource.


Burning One Third of Current Fossil Fuel Reserves is Enough to Wreck Civilization. So Why, Oh Why, are We Tapping Methane Hydrates?

We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be. –John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

According to a recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, burning 1/3 of the remaining fossil fuel reserves is enough to push world CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm. This concentration would almost certainly bring world temperatures more than 2 degrees above the 20th century average — a level that scientists agree would result in powerful climate feedbacks and terrible impacts to human civilization, likely wrecking many of the world’s most powerful and diverse societies. This is the terrible outcome we see from burning just 1/3 of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves. Burning them all puts the world on the path to a devastating and unlivable 1000 ppm or more.

Yet world fossil fuel reserves is a moving number. Each year, new sources that were considered inaccessible are tapped. So, next year, new discoveries will add to the total. And the year following. And so on. Even worse, worldwide efforts by advanced societies to tap a massive fossil reserve of methane called hydrates is now underway. Methane hydrate is a frozen reserve of methane and water that lies locked hundreds or thousands of feet below permafrost or on or beneath ocean sea beds. Altogether, they represent a carbon store as much as two or three times the size of the world’s current accessible fossil fuel reserves.

Japan, Russia, and now the United States are experimenting with new technologies aimed at extracting these massive methane reserves. Recently, in Alaska, Conoco Philips, funded by Department of Energy grant money, partnered with Japanese hydrate extraction experts in an attempt to tap frozen methane beneath Alaska’s North Slope. In a process that involves injecting CO2 into underground formations to displace frozen methane, this partnership is attempting to prove viable a new extraction technology that may result in the additional burning of more than a trillion tons of fossil fuel.

The cost of this extraction is still prohibitively high. But, if tar sands, fracking and other unconventional extraction techniques are any guide, the oil industry will spare no expense to extract and burn as much of this fuel as possible. And, if current marketing and lobbying campaigns by the oil and gas companies are successful, then alternative energies will be squelched, necessitating the burning of this expensive and environmentally explosive fuel.

Though some CO2 may be sequestered in the extraction process, an additional volume of methane will be released as well. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. But the real issue is the fact that burning this methane in addition to all the other conventional fossil fuels would create enough global warming to wreck human civilization many times over. This is an unconscionable result. Which begs the question: why are we trying to tap this methane? Why are we continuing to make our situation worse and worse when we should be deploying alternative energy technologies as fast as is humanly possible? We need to avoid 450 ppm CO2 like the plague and we need to rush back to 350 ppm CO2 as fast as possible.

We had a climate-change driven storm earlier this month. It was powerful and freakish. It flooded New York City’s subway system for the first time ever and left more than 40,000 Americans homeless. But Sandy will seem but a weak trifle compared to the impacts coming our way. So, why, oh why would we continue to make them worse?


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