Unconfirmed Reports of Giant, 1 Kilometer, Methane Crater Found in Siberia

“We have just learnt that in Yakutia, new information has emerged about a giant crater one kilometre (0.6 miles) in diameter,” the deputy director of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vasily Bogoyavlensky, told AFP.

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Sometimes, when writing a blog about the latest cutting edge climate science, you feel like you’re tracing the footprints of a Godzilla-like monster. One of Steven Pascala’s proverbial ‘climate monsters in the closet.’ This week has been filled with those days. Days when you get the sense that one might have gotten out.

METOP Methane 2359 ppb

(Arctic methane overburden continues. NOAA’s IASI METOP sensor again shows elevated methane readings today peaking at 2349 ppb [average 1819 ppb] with highest levels [pink] concentrated over the Arctic and upper Northern Hemisphere Latitudes in the 18,000 foot altitude layer. Image source: METOP.)

Just this Monday, I penned a narrative analysis of the signs of methane and carbon store destabilization in the Arctic, the various risks involved, and the potential that the methane blow holes we’ve been witnessing may be linked to giant craters previously found on the ocean floor. Craters ranging from 250 meters to seven miles across.

Yesterday, the deputy director of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) issued the above statement to the Associated Press, in which he described a newly discovered 1000 meter crater in the Yakutia region. The statement was then circulated in the Guardian and at Physics.org.

The Maw of Yamal Crater
(The Yamal Crater, as seen above, would be miniscule compared to a Yakutia Crater reported by Russian Scientists yesterday. Image source: The Siberian Times via Vasily Bogoyavlensky.)

The statement was a few paragraphs down in a report that announced a likely link between climate change and the seven other methane craters discovered throughout northern Siberia over the past eight months. It provided no additional context, simply reporting a massive crater. One that, if it proves to be a confirmed recent event, could completely reshape the way we look at how thawing lands and sea beds impact sequestered methane and carbon stores in the Arctic.

But there is still quite a lot we do not know about this crater, including its potential age.

The first Crater, discovered in Yamal was just a bit more than 100 feet across and 220 feet in depth. Of all the craters discovered up until yesterday, it was the largest. According to reports from the Russian Academy of Sciences and from the Russian Center of Arctic Exploration, often through the Siberian Times, these craters were likely caused by explosions of methane under high pressure through a top layer of melting permafrost. The reports identified destabilized relic methane hydrate as a likely source of the eruptions, which the scientists are now stating are somewhat similar to volcanic explosions.

Global Temperature Anomalies

(Global temperature anomalies from the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer today shows extraordinary temperature departures in the range of +20 C above average over Yakutia, Russia. A region that has experienced an extraordinary pace of warming coincident with raging polar amplification. Data Source: Global Forecast System Model.)

The new crater is said to be located in a region of Yakutia, which is a Siberian province many hundreds of miles east of the Yamal Crater. Yakutia hosts some of the densest permafrost deposits in the Arctic. It has also experienced extraordinarily rapid warming similar to the Yamal increase of 2 degrees Celsius in just 14 years. Over coming years, the pace of warming is predicted to be equally rapid. Climate models for the region indicate as much as 8 degrees Celsius warming through the end of this Century. The result is that we see Yakutia, as much of Siberia, in a state of very rapid and destabilizing climate change.

Stresses to permafrost due to this raging rate of warming are extraordinary and involve not only permafrost melt and subsidence but also horrific wildfires that individually burn hundreds of square miles. These enormous wildfires are not normal, garden variety infernos. They often alter the weather, forming enormous fire thunderstorms overhead. They have been reported to burn so hot as to ignite the soil itself, incinerating everything to at least three feet of depth. Near surface methane pockets also likely become involved in these fires and the peat-like structure of the permafrost, once thawed, can result in continued basement smoldering long after the surface fire is extinguished.

siberian-fires-july-23
(Massive wildfires belching out immense plumes of smoke on July 23, 2014 in the Yakutia region of Russia. For reference, bottom edge of frame is about 2000 miles. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

These massive, fearsome fires are anything but normal. They are directly linked to the rate of warming, permafrost thaw, and carbon store release in Arctic Siberia. And it appears that for Yakutia, which has seen some of the worst of these fires, a rather large scale methane eruption risk — enough to produce 1000 meter craters — may also now be involved as well.

Links:

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release
Russian Scientists Say Climate Change to Blame for Mysterious Siberian Craters
More Giant Craters Spotted in Russian Far North
More Siberian Blowholes Found in the Permafrost
LANCE-MODIS
The Siberian Times
METOP

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Ouse, MD

Scientific hat tip to The Russian Academy of Sciences

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The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Crater Found

Yamal Hole

(One of three massive holes found in Siberia. The prominent theory for the holes’ formation is a catastrophic destabilization of sub-surface methane under thawing tundra. Image source: The Moscow Times.)

Add salt, sand, and thawing methane pockets buried beneath scores of feet of warming permafrost together and what do you get? Massive explosions that rip 200-300 foot deep and 13-98 foot wide holes in the Siberian earth.

The name for the place where this strange event first happened, in Russian, is Yamal, which roughly translates to mean ‘the end of the Earth.’ Now, three holes of similar structure have appeared over a 700 mile wide expanse of Siberian tundra. The most likely culprit? Catastrophic destabilization of Arctic methane stores due to human-caused warming.

A Tale of Dragon’s Breath: How the Yamal Event Likely Unfolded

About 10,000 years ago, as the great glaciers of the last ice age gave up their waters in immense surges and outbursts into the world ocean, a broad section of Siberian tundra was temporarily submerged by rising seas. But with the loss of the great glaciers, pressures upon the crust in these zones subsided and, slowly, the newly flooded tundra rose, again liberating itself, over thousands of years of uplift, from the waters.

The land remained frozen throughout this time, covered in a layer of ice — solid permafrost hundreds of feet deep. But the oceanic flood left its mark. Salt water and sand found its way into cracks in the icy soil, depositing in pockets throughout the frozen region’s earth.

And there this chemical brew remained, waiting to be deep-frozen and sequestered as the glaciers of a new age of ice advanced over the Earth.

Arctic Warming Trend 1960 to 1990

(Arctic warming trend from 1960 to 1990. Image source: NOAA.)

But this event, foretold and anticipated in the bones of Earth, did not come to pass. Instead, human beings began dumping billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. They dug up mountains of ancient carbon and burned it. And now those mountains of carbon lived in the air, thickening it, trapping heat.

For Siberia, this meant rising temperatures. At first, the increase was slow. Perhaps a tenth of a degree per decade. But by the time the 20th Century was closing and the 21st Century emerged, the pace of warming was greater than at any time even the Earth could remember — an increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius or more every ten years.

Now, the glaciers will probably not return for hundreds of thousands of years, if ever. And now, the brew that was waiting to be buried is instead thawing and mixing. A deep, heat-based cracking of the frozen soil that flash-bakes an alchemical mixture deposited over the ages. The result: dragon’s breath erupting from the very soil.

Explosive Eruptions From Smoking Earth

One Taz District local described the day the crater formed–

The earth was first observed to smoke. This continued for some time and then a bright flash followed by a loud bang exploded above the tundra. After the mists and smoke cleared, a large hole surrounded by mounds of ejected soil was visible. The hole tunneled like a cone more than 200 feet down. Its walls were frozen permafrost.

Siberian Craters Map

(Broad expanse of Siberia containing three massive holes, indications of explosive eruptions in the permafrost set off by thawing methane mixed with salt, water and sand. The holes are all in the range of 200-300 feet deep. Deep enough to contact subsoil methane pockets or, in some cases, frozen clathrate. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

A single event of this kind might be easy to overlook as an aberration. A freak case that might well be attributed to unique conditions. But over the past two weeks not one, not two, but three large holes, all retaining the same features, have appeared within the same region of Yamal, Russia.

A single event may well be easily marked off as a strange occurrence, but three look more like the start of a trend.

Weather Underground notes:

The holes may foreshadow bigger problems for our planet in the near future, scientists worry. Permafrost around the Arctic contains methane and carbon dioxide, and both could be dangerous to our environment if released, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As long as the permafrost remains frozen, the report adds, this isn’t a concern, but climate models have painted a grim future for rising temperatures in the Arctic.

And with temperatures in the Arctic, and especially over Siberia, rising so fast, the permafrost is not remaining frozen. It is instead thawing. And together with this thaw comes a growing release of carbon stored there over the 2-3 million year period since the ice ages began their long reign. It is a release we can expect to continue together with human-caused warming. One that is critical to abate as much as possible, if we are to have much hope for a climate favorable for human beings and the continuing diversity of life on this world. How rapidly and violently the Arctic responds to our insults depends on how hard we push it. And right now, through an amazing human carbon emission, we are now pushing the Arctic very hard.

Jason Box, a prominent Arctic researcher and head of the Dark Snow Project, noted Sunday in his blog, Meltfactor:

What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.

If the warming trends continue and fossil fuel burning does not abate, these holes may be only minor explosive outbursts compared to what may follow. In any case, given current trends, it appears entirely possible that more and more of these strange holes will be appearing throughout the Arctic. An ugly sign of the danger inherent to our time.

Links:

Another Siberian Hole Discovered

Not So Mysterious Hole Found in Siberia

Two New Holes Appear in Siberia

Is the Climate Dragon Awakening?

Siberian Tundra Holes are a Mystery to Me

Is this the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun?

It’s All About Frozen Ground

Arctic Climate: A Perspective For Modeling

 

CO2, Earth’s Global Thermostat, Dials Up to Record 401.6 ppm Daily Value on March 12

NASA GISS, likely the world’s premier Earth atmospheric monitoring agency has dubbed CO2 “The Thermostat that Control’s Earth’s Temperature.” So when human fossil fuel emissions keep cranking that thermostat ever higher, it’s important sit up and take note. For, inexorably, we keep forcing atmospheric values of this critical heat-trapping gas up and up.

According to reports from The Mauna Loa Observatory and The Keeling Curve, daily CO2 values for March 12 rocketed to a record 401.6 parts per million. Hourly values rose briefly higher, touching 402 parts per million. Levels fell back to around 400 ppm on March 13. But the overall trend will continue upward through March, April and much of May when the height of annual atmospheric CO2 readings is typically reached.

By comparison, during May of last year, daily and weekly values hit just slightly higher than 400 parts per million while measures for the month hovered just below this number. We are now about two months away from the 2014 peak. So it appears possible that daily values could rise to 404 ppm or greater with highs for the month potentially exceeding 402 ppm (you can view a comparison graph for May 2013 here).

March CO2 401.6

(Daily and hourly atmospheric CO2 values from March 7 to 13. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Such high levels of this gas have not been seen on Earth in over 3 million years. A time when temperatures were 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were 15-75 feet higher than today. And should CO2 levels merely remain at the level currently achieved, we can probably expect at least the same amount of warming long-term.

CO2 in Context

Annually, the average rate of CO2 increase now is an extraordinary 2.2 parts per million each year. This rate is about 6-7 times faster than at any time in geological history. None of the vast flood basalts of the ancient past, no period of natural vulcanism, can now rival the constant and massive injection of this powerful and long-lasting greenhouse gas by humans into the atmosphere.

Last year, the rate of increase spiked to around 2.5 parts per million and we can view this as mere prelude under a continuation of business as usual. For if human fossil fuel emissions are not radically brought into check, the ongoing economic inertia of existing fossil fuel based infrastructure and planned new projects will likely shove this rate of increase to 3, 4 even 7 parts per million each year by the end of this century. As a result, CO2 levels alone have the potential to reach catastrophic values of 550 parts per million by around 2050-2060 that, long term and without any of the added effects of other greenhouse gasses, would be enough to eventually melt all the ice on Earth and raise global temperatures to around 5-6 degrees Celsius above current levels. A level that, through acidification alone and not including damage through stratification and anoxia, could drive up to 1/3 of ocean species to extinction.

CO2 accounts for much of the greenhouse forcing when taking into account the feedbacks it produces on water vapor and clouds. NASA notes:

Because carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of the non-condensing GHG forcing in the current climate atmosphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide therefore qualifies as the principal control knob that governs the temperature of Earth.

All other greenhouse gasses pale in comparison to both its total effect and its current rate of increase. Methane, the next most potent greenhouse gas, accounts for about 15% of the forcing and is rising at a rate of 4 parts per billion (1/550 that of CO2), generating a net effect equal to, in the worst case, an additional .4 parts per million CO2 each year (.29 when aerosols drop out). A troubling and dangerous increase itself. But still a mere shadow compared to the overall rate of CO2 increase.

Only in the most catastrophic of scenarios, when added atmospheric heat, primarily generated through added CO2 and other greenhouse gas forcing, triggers methane emissions equal to 2 gigatons each year in the Arctic (a rate 25 times the current release), would the total methane forcing approach the predicted value for CO2 by the end of this century under current fossil fuel emissions scenarios. More likely, paleoclimate scenarios tend to suggest that the natural methane feedback, long-term, is roughly equal to 50% of the CO2 forcing and is largely governed by it. A dangerous amplifying feedback driven by a devastating and long-lasting CO2 forcing.

CO2 is also the longest lived of the major greenhouse gasses with one molecule of CO2 providing effective atmospheric warming for at least 500 years. By comparison, the oxidation time for a single molecule of methane is around 8 years. What this means is that it takes an ever increasing methane emission just to keep values constant while atmospheric CO2 takes much longer to level off given even a constant rate of emission.

The result is that heat forcing from CO2 tends to remain constant over long periods while methane heat forcing values have a tendency to spike due to rapid oxidation.

methane.rf_.11071836-300x150

(Radiative forcing from a 10 gigaton release of methane in red compared to expected end century CO2 values of 750 ppm. Note how the methane heat forcing spikes and then rapidly falls off. Image source: RealClimate.)

Current rates of CO2 increase, therefore, should be viewed as catastrophic to climates that are both livable and benevolent to humans. A rate of increase that puts at risk severe changes to Earth environments and which provides a trigger for setting off a series of powerful amplifying feedbacks through the medium and long term. These include both loss of ice albedo and the potential for spiking methane emissions from the widespread natural store.

UPDATE:

Most recent daily values from March 12 onward in relationship to the six month trend. Note the sharp spike upward at the end of the period as well as the overall volatility of the trend line. High volatility may well be an indication that the typical carbon cycle is suffering disruption with sinks, stores and sources experiencing larger than typical fluxes.

mlo_six_months

(Mauna Loa Observatory six month trend. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Dr. Ralph Keeling today noted:

“We’re already seeing values over 400. Probably we’ll see values dwelling over 400 in April and May. It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever.”

Links:

The Keeling Curve

May 2013: CO2 Touches 400 ppm

The Thermostat that Control’s Earth’s Temperature

Atmospheric Composition, Radiative Forcing, and Climate Change as a Consequence from the Massive Release of Gas Hydrates

RealClimate

Hat Tip to Climate State

Kudos to Mark Archambault for Looking Sharp

Like a Volcano Slowly Awakening at the Top of our Earth: From Baffin Bay to the Laptev Sea, Arctic Methane Monster Releases Troubling Outbursts

The most dangerous of volcanoes have a number of identifiable behaviors.

They tend to lay dormant for hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years. Then, slowly, as heat and pressure beneath the Earth builds, they begin to awaken. First they tremble a bit. Then they emit a growing volume of noxious gas. Then, they begin a series of mini-outbursts in an ever more violent build-up to an explosive and destructive grand eruption.

The lost residents of Pompeii, were they here today, could tell us what such an event is like.

Now consider that a volcano-like thing also exists beneath the world’s frozen oceans and lands near the roof of our world. A thing that probably hasn’t erupted in over 45 million years. A thing that has had this immense period of time in which to build up an enormous highly toxic and explosive reserve of frozen and sequestered methane. A thing that is at least as large as the boundary circumscribed by the Arctic Circle. A vast and extraordinarily dangerous monster of a thing. A kind of climate super-volcano.

AIRS_Methane

(Initial methane out-gassing shows a tell-tale methane overburden in the troposphere near Arctic ocean and tundra methane sources in 2011. Just one of many signs of what may be a very large, impending methane eruption. Image source: NASA/AIRS.)

For ever since the Earth began its long fall into cooling at the end of the Eocene, methane has been freezing at the bottom of the world’s oceans, sequestering in the frozen earth. As world land and ocean temperatures fell, the methane formed into clathrates or was bound up in organic permafrost and was, ever-after, locked away. There it lay patiently, waiting for the time when it would be, once again, disturbed by a return to warmth.

And that time of dangerous and explosive reawakening, increasingly, seems to be now.

Footprint of the Vast Volcanic Monster: Shallow Seas, Deep Seas, Permafrost

Of these volatile methane concentrations, some of the most prolific and the most vulnerable reside in the Arctic. Some, which lay sequestered within the shallow sea bed near the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, have been the subject of much controversy during recent years. Scientists like Natalia Shakhova and Peter Wadhams have issued repeated warnings that these methane stores could be vulnerable to a rapid release as sea ice retreats and waters warm. It is estimated that as much as 1400 gigatons of methane lay sequestered under Arctic submarine permafrost in the ESAS. A massive store that, if disturbed even in part, could provide an immense amplifying feedback to human-caused warming.

But the Arctic submarine permafrost isn’t the only zone in which large volumes of methane lay hidden. The Amundsen Basin, one of the deepest trenches in the Arctic Ocean, in the Laptev Sea is a known emitter of methane from sub-sea sources. A region near Svalbard both stores and emits large volumes of methane. And, recently, high rates of methane release have been observed near Baffin Bay. A complete catalog of these stores has not been adequately assessed. But, in combination, it is likely that they at least approach the total volume of stores in the vulnerable East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) zone.

Ominous Rumblings from the Rapidly Warming Deeps

These stores are deeper beneath the ocean surface and so are not generally thought to be as vulnerable as the shallow sea reserves in the ESAS. But this thinking may be in error as Arctic waters display a temperature inversion in which surface waters near the ice pack are colder than deeper waters far below.

In addition, wide zones of deep water in the Arctic have displayed rapid warming over the past few decades. As an example, bottom waters in the Greenland Sea, an area between the east coast of Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, were shown in a September 2013 study to be warming 10 times faster than the rest of the world’s deep ocean system. According to the report:

Recent warming of the Greenland Sea Deep Water is about ten times higher than warming rates estimated for the global ocean. Scientists analyzed temperature data from 1950 to 2010 in the abyssal Greenland Sea, which is an ocean area located just to the south of the Arctic Ocean.

Deep Water Warming in Greenland Sea

(Deep Water Warming in the Greenland Sea since 1950. Image source: Science Daily. Image credit: Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.)

In other regions of the Arctic and through the rest of the global ocean system rapid ocean bottom warming has also been observed. Recent studies by Kevin Trenberth have found that heat accumulation in the deep ocean, during recent years, has outpaced that of warming at or near the surface. And because this warming occurs adjacent to frozen methane stores on or beneath the sea floor, it is a very, very dangerous development.

To the point of an observed rapid warming of the deep ocean, it is important to note that there are a number of mechanisms that transport heat into the abyss worldwide. But in the Arctic, this transfer system is amplified and particularly intense. Fresh, cold surface waters tend to deflect warmer, saltier waters funneling in from more southerly latitudes toward the Arctic Ocean bottom. As glacial ice melts in Greenland, as storms within the Arctic intensify and become more prevalent, and as fresh water runoff from the continents surrounding the Arctic basin increases, fresh water content at the surface grows and widens, creating a kind of fresh water wedge that expands southward and deflects warmer, saltier water toward the ocean bottom.

And there, the warmer waters can go to work releasing the massive volumes of methane stored in frozen clathrates near the ocean floor.

Large Mid-February Methane Belch

Methane released from deep water clathrate stores has a long journey before it reaches the atmosphere. The methane passes through the water column, where a portion of it oxidizes into CO2. Microbes near the methane source and throughout the water column devour a portion of the methane as an energy source. But eventually, if the pulse is large enough, the methane finds its way to the surface and releases. Such outbursts are, likely, only a fraction of the initial bottom release. So a large expulsion into the atmosphere may well be a hint that something even more powerful and energetic is going on down below.

Over the past decade, deep water regions have shown at least as much atmospheric venting as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. And this year has been no exception with troubling outbursts continuing in a zone from Baffin Bay to Svalbard to the Laptev Sea. These outbursts have, in part, contributed to increasing atmospheric methane concentrations at a rate of around 7 parts per billion each year since 2007 after an 8 year period during which global methane levels had plateaued at around 1790 parts per billion. By comparison, pre-industrial global methane levels were around 750 parts per billion during the 1880s. Today, they average around 1835 ppb (Mauna Loa). Should very large outbursts emerge, the rate of atmospheric methane increase would be expected to dramatically steepen. And though we haven’t yet seen these kinds of outbursts, more minor, but still large and concerning, continue to occur with troubling frequency.

This past week, according reports from Methane Tracker and Sam Carana, two particularly large and troubling ocean to atmosphere methane outbursts were observed in this region — one over the Laptev Sea and the other over Baffin Bay. The Baffin Bay outburst occurred in a zone where water depths ranged from 1,000 to 2,500 meters (middle to deep ocean) and the Laptev outburst likely occurred from the deep waters and precipitous slopes of the Amundsen Basin which plunges as deep as 4,400 meters (extraordinarily deep ocean) and extends almost directly under the North Pole.

Methane belch

(Methane belching from Laptev Sea and Baffin Bay on February 22nd with highest reading spiking to 2383 ppb, about 500 ppb above the global average. Image source: Methane Tracker and Sam Carana. Data source: composite methane data collection from SIO, NOAA ESRL, U.S. Navy, GEBCO. )

From these outbursts, 10,000 foot methane concentrations of 2383 ppb were observed. These readings are about 500 ppb higher than the global average and represent an extraordinary local spike for the Arctic.

The outbursts occurred in a region where the fresh water wedge was most recently active — areas where sea ice keeps expanding then melting and retreating as warmer, saltier waters encroach. Regions where the warmer water column would be continuously flushed toward ocean bottom zones containing methane hydrates.

If we were to continue with the volcano analogy, we could well consider the most recent Laptev and Baffin Bay outbursts to be a series of minor but intensifying eruptions. The most recent in a string of troubling and increasingly more volatile activity from the methane volcano rumbling at the top of our planet.

Links:

Deep Greenland Sea is Warming Faster than the World Ocean

Global Heating Accelerates, Deep Ocean Warming the Fastest, What Does it Mean for Methane Hydrates?

Methane Tracker

NOAA ESRL

Massive Methane Concentrations over Laptev Sea

2013 4th Hottest Year on Record, Deep Ocean Warming Fastest

Triggers to Release the Methane Monster, Deep Ocean Warming, Sea Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and the Fresh Water Wedge

Methane Emissions From ESAS Occurring at Twice the Expected Rate

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs

Beneath the Cracking, Melting Ice, The Arctic Methane Monster Continues it Ominous Rumblings

Amplifying Feedbacks and the Arctic Heat Scream: Study Finds Polar Albedo Falling at Twice Expected Rate, Added Heat Equal to 25% CO2 Forcing Globally, 4 Times Human Forcing Locally

What’s the difference between a majestic layer of white sea ice and an ominous dark blue open ocean?

For the Arctic, it means about a 30 to 50% loss in reflectivity (or albedo). And when seasonal sea ice states are between 30 and 80 percent below 1979 measures (depending on the method used to gauge remaining sea ice and relative time of year), that means very, very concerning additional heating impacts to an already dangerous human-caused warming.

Arctic Ocean September 1, 2012

(A dark and mostly ice-free Arctic Ocean beneath a tempestuous swirl of clouds on September 1, 2012, a time when sea ice coverage had declined to an area roughly equal to the land mass of Greenland. Image source: Lance-Modis/NASA AQUA.)

How concerning, however, remained somewhat unclear until recently.

In the past, idealized climate simulations and physical model runs had produced about a 2% overall loss in Arctic Albedo based on observed sea ice losses. This decline, though minor sounding, was enough, on its own, to add a little more than a 10% amplifying feedback to the, already powerful, human atmospheric CO2 forcing during recent years. Such an addition was already cause for serious concern and with sea ice totals continuing to fall rapidly, speculation abounded that just this single mechanism could severely tip the scales toward a more rapid warming.

But, as has been the case with a number of Arctic model simulations related to sea ice, these computer projections failed to measure up to direct observation. In this case, direct satellite observation. The situation is, therefore, once more, worse than expected.

A new study produced by University of San Diego Scientists now shows that loss of albedo for the Arctic Ocean due to rapidly declining sea ice was 4% during the period of 1979 to 2011. This amazing loss of reflectivity, on its own, created a powerful enough heat trap to produce an amplifying feedback to human warming equal to 25% of the heat captured by CO2 emitted during that time — when spread out over the entire globe. A feedback double what we were led to expect from climate model simulations. Perhaps more importantly, the local feedback in the Arctic — a region containing gigatons and gigatons of additional carbon waiting to be released during a period of rapid warming — is not 25% greater, but 4 times greater than the total human CO2 forcing since the start of the industrial revolution.

It is important to step back for a moment and consider the implication of this new information. If you took all the emissions from cars in the world, all the buses, all the aircraft, all the land use CO2 emissions, all the agriculture, and all the amazing extra atmospheric heat capture that an emission equal to 160 times that of all the volcanoes on Earth would entail and added it all together, just one insult to our natural world in the form of Arctic sea ice loss has now equaled a 25% addition to that amazing total. Or just add enough extra heat equal to 40 times the CO2 emitted by Earth’s volcanoes (for a total of x 200). And the burden of all that extra heat is directly over a region of the world that contains a number of very large ice sheets which, if rapidly warmed, result in catastrophic land change and sea level rise, and a number of outrageously enormous carbon deposits that, if rapidly warmed and released make the current albedo loss feedback look like child’s play.

In short, the game just got a lot uglier. Such an increase is a very big deal and will have strong implications going forward that affect the overall pace of human caused warming, the pace of Earth and Earth Systems changes, and the degree to which we might contain ultimate temperature rises under a scenario of full mitigation.

From the study contents:

We find that the Arctic planetary albedo has decreased from 0.52 to 0.48 between 1979 and 2011, corresponding to an additional 6.4 ± 0.9 W/m2 of solar energy input into the Arctic Ocean region since 1979. Averaged over the globe, this albedo decrease corresponds to a forcing that is 25% as large as that due to the change in CO2 during this period, considerably larger than expectations from models and other less direct recent estimates.

It is worth noting that the period measured by the study did not include the unprecedented sea ice area, extent and volume losses seen during 2012. So it is likely that albedo loss and related Arctic additions to human warming are somewhat worse than even this study suggests. It is also worth noting that the total additional radiative forcing from all human CO2 emissions since the industrial age began is estimated to be about 1.5 W/m2.

No Way Out Through Increasing Cloud Cover

The study also found that:

Changes in cloudiness appear to play a negligible role in observed Arctic darkening, thus reducing the possibility of Arctic cloud albedo feedbacks mitigating future Arctic warming.

Though seemingly innocuous, this statement is a death knell for one proposed method of Geo-engineering — namely cloud generation via spray ships deployed throughout the Arctic basin. The proposal had suggested that numerous ships could be spread about the Arctic during summer. These ships would be equipped with large machines that would dip into the ocean and spray sea water into the atmosphere to form clouds. The notion was that this would somehow increase albedo. Proponents of the plan neglected to provide scientific evidence that such a scheme would actually work or wouldn’t make matters worse by increasing atmospheric water vapor content — a substance with known heat-trapping properties.

Arctic Cloud Ship

(Conceptual drawing of an Arctic cloud-producing ship. Image source: Geo-engineering Watch.)

Others had hoped a cloudier Arctic would take care of itself by producing a negative feedback naturally. Numerous studies have found that an Arctic with less sea ice is a much stormier, cloudier Arctic. And a number of specialists and enthusiasts hinted that the extra clouds would provide some cooling.

Not so according to the San Diego study. And this makes sense as clouds, while reflective of direct radiation contain large quantities of heat-trapping water vapor and tend to also trap long-wave radiation — which is more prevalent in the Arctic due to low angle of light or extended periods of darkness.

Extraordinarily Rapid Arctic Amplification

Despite the various hollow conjectures and reassurances, what we have seen over the past seven years or so is an extraordinarily rapid amplification of heat within the Arctic. Arctic sea ice continues its death spiral, hitting new record lows at various times at least once a year. Heat keeps funneling into the Arctic, resulting in heatwaves that bring 90 degree temperatures to Arctic Ocean shores during summer and unprecedented Alaskan melts during January. We have seen freakish fires in regions previously covered by tundra. Fires that are the size of states in the Yakutia region of Russia, Alaska and Canada. Fires in Arctic Norway during winter time. And we see periods during winter when sea ice goes through extended stretches of melt, as we did just last week in the region of Svalbard.

One need only look at the temperature anomaly map for the last 30 days to know that something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong with the Arctic:

30 day anomaly

(Global temperature anomaly vs the, already warmer than normal, 1981 to 2010 baseline. Image source: NOAA/Earth Systems Research Laboratory.)

And one need only begin to add the number of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic together to start to understand how much trouble we’ve set for ourselves:

  1. Arctic albedo decrease due to sea ice loss.
  2. Arctic CO2 release due to thawing tundra.
  3. Arctic methane release due to thawing land tundra.
  4. Arctic methane release due to thawing subsea tundra and venting seabed methane.
  5. Arctic albedo loss due to black carbon deposition.
  6. Arctic albedo loss due to land vegetation changes.
  7. Warming Arctic seas due to runoff from warming lands.
  8. Arctic albedo decrease due to land snow and ice sheet melt.
  9. South to north heat transfer to the Arctic due to a weakening, retreating Jet Stream and increasing prevalence of high amplitude atmospheric waves.

We all know, intuitively what an amplifying feedback sounds like. Just hold a microphone closer to a speaker and listen to the rising wail of sound. And it is becoming ever more obvious with each passing day, with each new report that the Arctic is simply screaming to us.

How deaf are we? How deaf are those of us who continue to fail to listen?

Links:

Lance-Modis/NASA AQUA

Observational Determination of Albedo Decrease Caused by Vanishing Sea Ice

Warming From Arctic Sea Ice Melt More Dramatic than Thought

NOAA/Earth Systems Research Laboratory

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

The Arctic Ice Blog

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Geo-engineering Watch

Hat Tip to Mikkel

Arctic Methane Monster Continues Ominous Rumbling

Arctic Methane From Tundra Could add .4 to 1.5 Degrees Fahrenheit to Human Caused Warming

Arctic Wildfires In Winter: Norway Experiences Freakish Historic Wildfires In January

Flatanger Fire

(Flatanger Fire during the long winter night in Norway. Image source: NRK)

Major wildfires in California in winter are bad enough… Unfortunately, now we must include the Arctic to the anomalous tally. For since December, three major wildfires have erupted in Arctic Norway, with two of these extraordinary fires blazing through coastal Nordic settlements just this week.

*    *    *    *    *

On Monday, a major wildfire erupted along the western coast of Norway near the city of Flatanger. The fire, fanned by winds ranging from 30-50 miles per hour and by a drought in which almost no precipitation has fallen since Christmas spread rapidly, rushing over the mountainous terrain to put both life and livelihood at risk.

As of Wednesday, the fire had exploded to the largest wildfire recorded in Norway since World War II. It had also consumed 139 homes as it raced down the rocky mountain sides of western Norway.

By late Wednesday, as firefighers struggled to bring the Flatanger fire under control, a second massive fire erupted on the island of Froya about 80 miles to the south and west. The fire exploded with such ferocity that 430 residents were forced to evacuate as flames and smoke rushed down along the hillsides. As of Thursday, the Froya fire still burned out of control, threatening to spur evacuations from other settlements in the path of the blaze.

Froya wildfire

(Aerial Photo of the Froya Wildfire. Image source: News in English)

The Flatanger and Froya fires mirrored another large blaze that erupted in Norway during early December, consuming 40 homes near the town of Laerdal. The Laerdal fire coincided with a period of excessive warmth and drought, with December marking one of Norway’s warmest winter months ever and Oslo experiencing its hottest Christmas since record keeping began in 1937.

Needless to say, it is not at all normal for Norway to experience wildfires of record intensity during winter time. A clear sign that climate change together with a mangled jet stream and extreme polar amplification are well in play to create dangerous and freakish conditions.

“Just a month ago, no one would have said there was a threat of brushfires in Trøndelag at this time of year,” noted Dagfinn Kalheim, director of the Norwegian fire prevention association. Now, they’ve experienced three of their worst fires on record during winter. Unfortunately, in the context of a warming globe and related human-caused changes to the atmosphere, land and sea, locations around the world and especially around the Arctic Circle are under the gun to experience ever-worsening fires.

Drought, Fuel, Wind, Ignition

Western Norway has been in the midst of an ongoing drought since late fall. The drought, spurred by a ridge in the polar Jet Stream has steered storms away from the usually wet Norway and slammed them over and over into the British Isles, France and Spain. The drought left mountain scrub and thawing tundra in the region very dry and vulnerable to fire. This anomalous period also included one of the hottest Decembers in Norway’s reckoning.

In recent years we have seen increased fire vulnerability in far northern regions due to thawing tundra, increasing periods of heat and drought, and, possibly, maritime emissions of flammable gasses. The tundra is full of organic material and, in certain regions, emits methane in high enough concentrations to burn. The Arctic seas have also been emitting high volumes of methane and related flammable gasses, but it has not been determined that these emissions come in high enough concentration to add a potential secondary ignition source. Though a cause has not yet been determined for the historical Flatanger fire, it is likely that a combination of drought, related dry scrub and the yearly advance of thawing tundra in the region contributed to the intensity of the blaze.

Strong winds over the drought-stricken coastal region enabled the fire, which would generally be suppressed by temperatures near freezing, to rapidly spread through the tinder-dry underbrush and sporadic regions of thawed tundra. Fire fighters have been unable to locate an ignition source at this time.

You can watch a video of this anomalous blaze racing down the Flatanger mountainsides here:

(Video source: Se Flammen Fra Luften)

Climate Change Context

Climate change drives both increasing heat, extended periods of drought in previously damp regions, and changes to the environment, especially in the Arctic, that provides more fuel for wildfires. In addition, more numerous Arctic thunderstorms provide an expanding ignition source for these blazes while the Arctic Ocean and adjacent tundra now emit prodigious volumes of methane.

It is also worth noting that both the World Meteorological Organization and UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres have both established an ‘absolute’ link between human caused warming and increasing numbers of wildfires. And the fact that we are seeing the eruptions of major wildfires throughout the Northern Hemisphere during winter, a time when wildfires hardly ever occur, is yet more evidence that the situation is growing ever more extreme.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for Norway shows continued dry conditions for at least the next two weeks. In addition, a period of warming is expected to bring temperatures 7 degrees (Celsius) or more above seasonal averages over the coming days. With higher temperatures and dry, southerly winds continuing to blow, Norway remains under the gun for extreme winter wildfires.

Links:

Most Extensive Wildfire Since World War II

Fire Sweeps Across Peninsula in Northern Norway

Climate Change is Absolutely Linked to Wildfires

News in English

Northern Europe Experiencing one of its Mildest Decembers on Record

NRK

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Mangled Jet Stream Sparks Drought, Winter Wildfires in Southern California

Hat tip to SeeMoreRocks

Amplifying Feedbacks: Climate Model to Test Projections of Zero Sea Ice By Summer 2016, Stark Predictions by Wadhams, Duarte

Ever since 1995 and especially since 2007 Arctic sea ice area, volume and extent have been in rapid free-fall. By 2012 both sea ice area and extent had suffered losses greater than 55% when compared to end summer measures in 1979. Sea ice volume, meanwhile had shown a stunning loss of nearly 80% from 1979 volume observations. This staggering trend of losses means that any melt year comparable to 2007, 2010 (volume) or 2012 would result in the total or near total loss of all sea ice within the Arctic by end of summer.

The summer of 2013 was exceptional in that it was the first year that statistical averages indicated a potential for total summer sea ice loss. The risk at the time was considered to be low, only 10%. But the figure was historic in that, never before, had a statistical risk of total sea ice loss been identified. Following more typical trends, the 2013 melt season showed a bounce-back from 2012’s record melt year with levels roughly correlating with those seen in 2009. That said, even 2013’s pseudo-recovery did little to disturb an extraordinarily powerful melt trend:

Sea Ice Volume Exponential Trend Wipneus

(Sea Ice Volume Measurements For All Months as Observed By PIOMAS With Exponential Trend. Image source: Wipneus. Note that the exponential trend shows monthly volume measures for July, August, September and October reach zero sea ice volume all before 2019.)

Taken into context, the 2013 melt season was little more than a counter-trend year in a period of ongoing and apparently inexorable decline. In context to these massive losses, the heat forcing in the Arctic continues to grow with most regions showing at least a doubled rate of temperature increase when compared to the global norm. Total temperature change in the Arctic is now about 2 degrees Celsius hotter than the 1950 to 1980 global average. A recent study of the regions around Baffin Island showed temperatures are now hotter than at any time within at least the last 44,000 years and probably the last 120,000 years. And with temperatures rising by about .4 degrees Celsius each decade, the Arctic continues to rapidly transition toward ever more hot and unfamiliar territory.

A High Resolution Climate Model For An Arctic in Rapid Transition

These rapid and massive changes appear to have left conventional global climate models (GCMs) in the dust. Earlier global climate model runs of the Arctic assumed slow responses to temperature increases by the world’s ice sheets resulting in predictions for ice free Arctic Ocean conditions at much higher temperatures than those currently being observed. The result of these assumptions that Arctic sea ice generated high inertia and was more resilient to human caused climate change were predictions for ice free Arctic summers to hold off until at least 2100.

But, as we have seen in the above analysis, recent events have put the possibility for ice free Arctic conditions on a much shorter time-scale. And, until recently, only statistical analysis, exponential trends fitting, and direct observation were able to provide any direct guide that more closely fit the stark and ongoing changes in the Arctic. In a world where simulative models seemed to take precedence over even observed reality, the dearth of models describing what all could plainly see was a catastrophic and rapid melt trend cast doubt on the all-too-stark observations.

Now, a new tool to place these much more rapid than expected melt conditions into context appears to be coming together. The high resolution Regional Arctic Systems Model (RASM) constructed by US Navy Scientist Professor Wieslaw Maslowski finds its basis in a 2012 paper showing the potential for the Arctic to be ice free come 2016 +/- 3 years. This new model takes into account a more detailed summary of Arctic conditions including a more highly resolved interpretation of the impacts of warming-driven changes to:

“… sea ice deformation, ocean eddies, and associated ice-ocean boundary layer mixing, multiphase clouds as well as land-atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions.”

Dr. Maslowski notes that while no climate model simulation is perfectly accurate, the RASM simulation is likely to be much closer to what is actually happening in the Arctic environment. Maslowski notes:

“Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9,000 km3, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 ± 3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer. Regardless of high uncertainty associated with such an estimate, it does provide a lower bound of the time range for projections of seasonal sea ice cover.”

It is important to note that RASM hasn’t yet run or provided projections. But the fact that it is taking into account the visibly rapid loss of sea ice as well as a more refined view of the Arctic environs means that such a tool could well generate more accurate measures or at least help explain the apparently very rapid melt trend. According to Maslowski:

“We do expect to compare sea ice volume results [from the RASM model] with our earlier model for the same period … possibly next year or so…”

Confirmation of the Most Pessimistic Predictions?

2012 and 2007 record minimum overlay

(2007 and 2012 record sea ice minimums — overlay. Image source: NSIDC)

Dr. Maslowki’s paper and RASM model runs may provide single source confirmation for some of the most pessimistic predictions by Arctic sea ice experts. Dr. Peter Wadhams, a world renown sea ice expert who has spent about 30 years monitoring the state of sea ice aboard British Navy submarines has projected that the Arctic could reach an ice-free state by the end of summer during 2015 or 2016.

Another climate expert, Dr. Carlos Duarte, head of the Ocean Institute at the University of Australia, has projected that the Arctic will reach an ice free state by 2015.

More moderate projections place total sea ice loss during summer at between 2025 and 2040.

IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections For Extent (Trend in Black)

(IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections. Figures are in Sea Ice Extent (not Volume as seen Above). It is worth noting that the Volume and Area melt trends are much more pronounced than the extent measure that fails to count holes in the ice (area) or add in the measure of ice thickness (volume). The above image, produced by Overland and Wang, also appears to be off the 2012 minimum extent measure by about 200,000 square kilometers.)

Meanwhile, global climate models (GCMs), provided above, continue to lag real time observation, and projections by noted experts. Even taking into account models that have gotten the current trend mostly correct show ice free conditions by around 2050 (mean). Meanwhile, the GCM overall mean continues to show near ice-free conditions by 2100.

These projections are questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they only take into account the very low resolution of sea ice extent and not the higher resolution figures of sea ice area or volume. Sea ice area, for example, fell to a stunning record low of 2.1 million square kilometers during 2012, a total loss of about 3.6 million square kilometers since 1979 and a loss of about 1 million square kilometers off the previous record low (area) set in 2011. Such a low figure could already, arguably, be called ‘nearly ice free when compared to average area lows of nearly 6 million square kilometers during summers four decades ago.

sea ice area

(Sea Ice Area Measures Provided by NSIDC via Cryosphere Today. Note the extreme record low set in 2012, a measure well below comparable sea ice extent figures which fail to account for holes in the ice. See also: Arctic Ice Graphs.)

It is this lack of GCM resolution, combined with an ongoing trend of stunning losses that has resulted in serious changes in predictions by even somewhat conservative scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Professor Mark Serreze of Colorado’s branch of NSIDC, who is skeptical that ice free conditions could be reached as early as 2016, notes:

“I am on record stating that we may lose the summer ice cover as early as 2030, and I stand behind that statement. This is in itself much earlier than projections from nearly all climate model simulations. I would agree with Dr. Maslowski that the IPCC models have shortcomings.”

The question, then, is will higher resolution climate models like Maslowski’s RASM provide a better understanding of what appear to be chaotic, powerful and rapid changes to the Arctic environment well ahead of the previously predicted time-frame?

Loss of Summer Sea Ice to Unleash Amplifying Feedbacks

Because it covers such a large stretch of ocean with a white, reflective surface, sea ice is a primary governor of Arctic and global weather. It keeps the Arctic cool by insulating millions of square kilometers of dark Arctic Ocean waters from the near constant radiation of the polar summer sun.

As the sea ice retreats, more of this dark water becomes exposed to the sun’s rays. Because the ocean surface is dark, it traps most of this light. The result is far greater warming of the Arctic during the summer time.

The loss of sea ice and related ocean warming has a number of knock-on effects. The first is that increasing ocean heat delivers far more energy to the sea bed. In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, the warming shallow sea is one filled with carbon deposits from a massive expanse of submerged tundra. An estimated 1500 gigatons of methane lay sequestered in thawing permafrost beneath this rapidly warming sea. According to Wadhams, loss of sea ice can add up to 7 degrees Celsius of additional warming to this vulnerable sea bed.

Current estimates provided by Dr. Natalia Shakhova show that around 17 megatons of methane are being released from the ESAS each year. This emission is more than twice that of the entire global ocean system and accounts for about 2.8 percent of the current global methane emission. Given the massive volume of methane stored in the ESAS and the rapid pace of sea ice loss and related ocean warming, this region of the world is more than capable of providing significant additional volumes of this potent greenhouse gas.

ESAS methane froth and sea ice

(A frothy mixture of methane and sea ice near the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Image source: Igor Semiletov, The University of Alaska)

Meanwhile, ship based observations show that methane levels at the surface of ESAS waters are a stunning 3800 ppb, about twice the global average:

“Ship-based observations show that methane concentrations in the air above the East Siberian Sea Shelf are nearly twice as high as the global average… Layers of sediment below the permafrost slowly emit methane gas, and this gas has been trapped for millennia beneath the permafrost. As sea levels rose at the end of the ice age, the shelf was once again covered by relatively warm ocean water, thawing the permafrost and releasing the trapped methane… In the short-term… methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide. (NSIDC)”

More rapid Arctic Ocean warming during summer times also results in more rapid warming of nearby land masses. And recent years have seen a number of extraordinary Arctic heatwaves driving 80+ degree temperatures all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Rapid warming of this region also results in a rapid thaw of massive volumes of permafrost. The permafrost stores organic material that breaks down into both CO2 and methane, providing additional emissions that enhance an already very rapid human warming. Current emissions from the Arctic tundra system are estimated to be around 17 megatons of methane and hundreds of megatons of CO2. Like the emissions coming from the ESAS, these emissions provide a significant added contributor to the human GHG forcing and will likely continue to provide increasing emissions as the sea ice retreats further.

In addition to the combined amplifying feedback of loss of sea ice albedo and amplifying greenhouse gas emissions from the Arctic, sea ice erosion has now also been shown to have profound effects on the circumpolar Jet Stream. Research by Dr. Jennifer Francis, Dr. Quihang Tang, a number of other scientists, and confirming analysis by Dr. Jeff Masters, has noted a weakening in the Jet Stream caused by a lowering of the temperature differential between the lower latitudes and the poles. The Jet is driven by such high temperature extremes between north and south. But as the higher latitudes warm faster than the temperate zones this temperature differential drops and the Jet Stream weakens. The end result is higher amplitude Jet Stream waves that tend to get stuck, resulting in more persistent, extreme weather. Dr Quihang, in a recent paper, notes:

“As the high latitudes warm faster than the mid-latitudes because of amplifying effects of melting ice, the west-to-east jet-stream wind is weakened. Consequently, the atmospheric circulation change tends to favour more persistent weather systems and a higher likelihood of summer weather extremes.”

The end result of these alterations brought on by a very rapid loss of Arctic sea ice are chaotic changes to the Arctic Ocean and surrounding lands along with a severe disruption to Northern Hemisphere weather patterns. These changes also combine in a self-reinforcing pattern to further amplify the pace of human caused warming both in the Arctic and around the globe. And should the summer Arctic sea ice completely melt in the time-frame of now to 2019 as Maslowski, Wadhams and Duarte have projected as a ‘most rapid’ estimate, then the already stark changes we are seeing will become much more extreme and pronounced.

Links:

The Future of Sea Ice

US Navy Predicts Summer Ice Free Arctic by 2016 (Note, the Guardian article appears to be somewhat misinformed, conflating a 2012 paper by Maslowski with RASM model runs.)

NSIDC

Extreme Summer Weather Linked To Vanishing Cryosphere

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Wipneus

Could Arctic Summers be Ice-Free Within Three Year’s Time?

When Will the Arctic Summer be Nearly Ice Free?

Arctic Sea Ice Graphs

Hat Tip to Aaron

(Updated December 17)

Arctic Methane Monster Shortens Tail: Shakova, Semiletov Study Shows ESAS Emitting Methane at Twice Expected Rate

ESAS emissions map

(ESAS Bathymetric and Methane Emissions Map. Image source: Nature)

Arctic Methane emissions have been a touchy subject ever since sporadic reports began trickling in during the mid-2000s that volumes of the gas coming from local sources were on the rise. Two of the scientists producing these reports, Igor Semiletov and Natalia Shakova have been observing a key region of the Arctic called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) since the mid 1990s. At that time, Semiletov and Shakova found no major emissions sources coming from this vast sea whose bottom is composed primarily of carbon-rich submerged tundra.

That all changed in 2010 when an expedition led by Semiletov and Shakova discovered bubbling structures tens of meters across on the shallow and vulnerable ESAS sea bed. Returning in 2011, the pair were surprised and terrified by methane bubbling up from structures as large as 1 kilometer across. During this time Semiletov noted:

“Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It’s amazing. I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them.”

In the period of 2010 to 2013, other regions of the Arctic were also found to be emitting high volumes of both methane and CO2. These regions included but were not limited to Yedoma in Russia, other portions of the Siberian continental shelf, regions off of Svalbard, regions off of Greenland, and regions over Arctic Alaska and Canada (see NASA’s CARVE mission). Though the reports were sporadic and isolated, a picture began to emerge that the vast stores of Arctic carbon — totaling around 5,000 gigatons or a little less than ten times that already emitted via human fossil fuel burning — were beginning to contribute to the world’s atmospheric greenhouse gas stores.

Concern, especially over methane which creates between 25-75 times more warming than an equal volume of CO2, was on the rise. ESAS again fell into focus because about 1,500 gigatons of carbon in the form of methane is thought to be sealed under a now perforated and rapidly melting layer of permafrost. And by winter of 2013, satellite measures were showing an increasing overburden of methane in the atmosphere above the Arctic.

(You can view the 2009 to 2013 time series for January 21-31 below. Note the rapid increase in relative methane concentration. Click on image for higher resolution.)

methane-jan21-31

(Image source: AQUA Satellite, NASA. Image produced by Dr. Leonid Yurganov)

These increasing methane levels were a sign of higher Arctic emissions. And, though concerning, they hadn’t yet risen to the level to indicate the catastrophic release that some scientists feared was possible.

By summer of 2013, Peter Wadhams, a polar researcher with more than 30 years experience studying Arctic sea ice from the vantage of British navy submarines, chimed in with an article published in the prestigious journal Nature entitled Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change. In the article, Wadhams and his co-authors projected the economic costs of a catastrophic 50 gigaton methane emission from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf over the coming decades. Though the article itself didn’t provide an estimate of how likely such a dangerous emission would be, Wadhams, in his later press interviews indicated that he believed it was certainly possible due to new mechanisms set in motion by melting sea ice.

Misplaced Mechanisms

The Nature article received numerous criticisms from prominent climate modelers. Chief among these were David Archer and Gavin Schmidt. Archer and Schmidt both adhere to the notion that it will take centuries or perhaps thousands of years for a significant volume of methane to be emitted from the Arctic. They conjecture that emissions from Arctic sources will increase, but at a very slow rate, and to a level that is not markedly significant when compared to overall human CO2 emissions. This relatively slow and low Arctic contribution view is based on a model assessment of the physical sciences that has yet to quantify a strong enough physical mechanism to break methane out of its traps and produce the kind of emissions Wadhams and others fear.

In the conjecture over the potential dangers of Arctic methane release, Schmidt and Archer provide support for a long tail of emissions rather than a more sudden and powerful release.

To these criticisms, Wadhams responded in Cambridge University Press:

“What is happening is that the summer sea ice now retreats so far, and for so long each summer, that there is a substantial ice-free season over the Siberian shelf, sufficient for solar irradiance to warm the surface water by a significant amount – up to 7C according to satellite data. That warming extends the 50 m or so to the seabed because we are dealing with only a polar surface water layer here (over the shelves the Arctic Ocean structure is one-layer rather than three layers)  and the surface warming is mixed down by wave-induced mixing because the extensive open water permits large fetches.  So long as some ice persisted on the shelf, the water mass was held to about 0C in summer because any further heat content in the water column was used for melting the ice underside. But once the ice disappears, as it has done, the temperature of the water can rise significantly, and the heat content reaching the seabed can melt the frozen sediments at a rate that was never before possible.

The 2008 US Climate Change Science Program report  needs to be seen in this context. Equally, David Archer’s 2010 comment that “so far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that (a catastrophic methane release) happen” was not informed by the Semiletov/Shakhova field experiments and the mechanism described above. Carolyn Rupple’s review of 2011 equally does not reflect awareness of this new mechanism.”

It is worth noting that Dr. Wadhams has been very pessimistic about the state of the Arctic of late, predicting that a near complete loss of summer sea ice is likely by 2015 or 2016 — among the most rapid of such predictions. And the severe pessimism of one of the world’s premier sea ice researchers is not at all cause for comfort. This doesn’t mean that conditions are quite so bad as Wadhams suggests. But they could be. And this potential, along with the related potential for a more rapid ESAS release, is very unsettling, Archer’s and Schimdt’s reassurances aside.

Arctic no Longer in the Holocene

By October and November of 2013, the controversy over Wadhams Nature article had mostly faded. But with little in the way of new information, the details of the issue remained inconclusive as ever. Loss of Arctic sea ice had, at least, taken a pause. Sea ice area and extent had retrenched, under the continued assault of human warming, to levels last seen in 2009, but still remained near record low levels in all measures. This pause in the rate of loss was cause for some relief, if little comfort.

On the flip side, a new report had been issued showing that large regions of Arctic Canada were experiencing temperatures that were warmer than at any time in at least 44,000 years and probably 120,000 years. This report added to a long list of growing evidence that the Arctic was rapidly moving out of any reasonable context comparable to the Holocene and was probably well on its way toward something more closely resembling the Pliocene of about 3 million years ago (the last time CO2 levels hit 400 ppm) or worse.

And out of context, anomalous Arctic heat, meant out of context, anomalous stress on the ESAS’s frozen sea bed.

Arctic Methane Spikes as Shakhova Finds ESAS Emissions At Least Double Previous Estimates

Bad news was also coming from Arctic methane readings when, during September, October and November large spikes pushed local readings in some areas as high as 2500 parts per billion, more than a 600 parts per billion above the global average with large regions around the Arctic frequently showing readings above 1950 parts per billion.

By late November, another report had been issued by Shakhova and Semiletov. Published to the journal of Nature Geoscience, the report found that methane emissions from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, one of the regions of greatest concern, was conservatively estimated to be about 17 megatons per year. This amount is twice that previously estimated by scientists, through the use of physical models and less refined observations, to be coming from this region. It also represents a total emission about twice that of the rest of the entire global ocean system.

The recent Shakhova paper also found the permafrost cap over the methane stored beneath the ESAS to be highly perforated and very close to thawing. Measurements taken from the permafrost showed the top layer had mostly already thawed while the still frozen layers lower down ranged in temperature between 30 and 32 degrees (Fahrenheit) — at the brink of melt. Furthermore, the composed data for the 1999 to 2013 period showed the seabed warming by .9 degrees Fahrenheit even as air temperatures warmed by 1.8 degrees (F) during the summer.

Increasing transport of warmer waters to ESAS bottom zones was facilitated by larger river outflows in the region, likely also a result of human-caused changes to Arctic weather patterns.

Dynamics of bottom water by the coastal zone

(ESAS bottom water temperature measurements from 1999 to 2012. Red = summer. Blue = winter. Green squares = historical data. Source: Nature)

Climate modelers had previously estimated it would take many hundreds of years, perhaps 5,000 to 7,000 years for ESAS permafrost to thaw under human warming. But Shakhova noted the models weren’t even accounting for the higher than estimated current rate of release:

“What we’re observing right now is much faster than what we anticipated and much faster than what was modeled,” Shakhova said. “We decided to be as conservative as possible. We’re actually talking the top of the iceberg.”

The methane beneath the ESAS was also found to be very responsive to environmental changes and conditions, no matter how transient or temporary. Storms, warming waters, and warmer ocean currents were observed to enhance release of methane from the ESAS. Yet one more sign of an increasingly fragile methane cap.

Models Wrong Again?

Anyone following the rapid pace of sea ice melt will recall how, up until very recently, sea ice melt models got the melt time frame dreadfully wrong. As recently as 2007, modellers were stating that near ice free conditions would not happen until the end of this century. Now, after two devastating record melt years in 2007 and 2012, bringing Arctic sea ice within a paltry 2.1 million square kilometers of zero, even the most conservative scientists project the potential for near ice free conditions by around 2035 to 2040, with the more aggressive among these putting the Arctic at a near ice-free end summer state by 2016 to 2020. Meanwhile, global climate model projections of sea ice loss continue to lag well behind observed trends. A mean of IPCC model runs still project a total or near total sea loss by 2100 in a mean of the models surveyed and those models that appear to be within the standard deviation of current observed ice loss trends predict, in their mean, an ice-free or near ice-free state by 2050. So what we have is a noted split between expert analysis of what is happening and what is likely happening to sea ice, and a continued set of highly conservative and apparently inaccurate (at least under current trends) projections by GCMs.

This observed conservatism in GCMs also calls into question their accuracy in predicting the response of global methane traps, especially the critical ESAS methane store. For the ESAS cap to even partly fail, as it now hints at doing, at any time this century would be another massive under-estimation by the climate models. It would also put at risk, as Wadhams warns, the release of gigatons of methane from its ever more permeable ESAS traps together with a number of very severe climate consequences.

Emission Rate Bad, But Not Catastrophic At This Time

Currently, however, it appears that such a very large release is not yet underway. A 17 megaton emission, though double previous estimates and outside the range projected by GCMs, represents about 2.8% of the global total methane emission from all sources (or 10% the total US emission). This puts ESAS on the map of very large single sources, but it does not yet provide enough methane to overwhelm the current methane balance. To do that, yearly rates would have to rise by an order of magnitude, reaching about 150 megatons a year or more.

Ironically, about a 150 megaton per year emission, averaged over thousands of years, is what climate models currently project (although the models show larger emissions happening much later). So it is worth noting that even getting on this track would be a bad consequence while exceeding it by any serious margin this century would be a very, very bad consequence indeed.

To put the size of the ESAS methane store into context it is worth considering that should the ESAS emit 1 gigaton of methane each year, it could continue that emission for more than a thousand years. Such a rate of emission would about effectively double the current forcing from human CO2 emissions and extend the time-frame of that forcing for up to 15 centuries.

Thankfully, we haven’t yet approached such a catastrophe. Instead, the current emission combines with other sources to continue to slowly push world methane levels higher, adding incrementally more heat forcing to an already stressed global system and adding to a yearly growth rate of about 10-20 ppb each year.

A Marker for Future Comparison

Shakhova’s research does, however, put a marker on the ESAS emissions map. Should we return in a few years to find emissions dramatically increased, we will have more evidence that ESAS is indeed rapidly destabilizing. Shakhova and Semiletov’s earlier observations provide some evidence for this already. However, with a quantifiable figure now available, it will be easier to gauge to what degree ESAS is increasing its already substantial, but not currently catastrophic, methane release.

Links:

Ebullition and Storm Induced Methane Release From the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Arctic Ocean Leaking Methane At Alarming Rate

Arctic and Methane in Context (David Archer attempts to provide some comfort)

More Arctic Methane Bubbles Into the Atmosphere

Arctic warmer than at any time in at least 44,000 years and probably 120,000 years

Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change

Wadhams Explains Mechanisms in Cambridge University Press

And the Wind Cries Methane

(Updated December 18)

Radio Ecoshock Interview: Record Floods, ENSO, Methane Release, and Slope Collapse

ecoshockradio_header

Last week, I discussed the issues of recent record floods, record ocean temperatures despite the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, methane release, slope collapse and ocean stratification along with other environmental and ecological issues surrounding our ongoing climate change crisis with Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock. The program became available online late Tuesday and will be airing on various radio stations around the US this week. You can click on the image above to listen to my 30 minute interview or you can listen to the entire 60 minute program which also includes an interview with Oxford marine biologist Dr. Alex Rogers here.

The professionally produced program will air on 71 radio stations over the coming week and will be continuously available online at Radio Ecoshock. This is, perhaps, one of the best interviews I’ve conducted and Alex Smith is a fantastic host providing fantastically insightful questions and analysis. So, if you have the time, I wholeheartedly suggest you listen to the entire program.

Those familiar with my blog will probably be well acquainted with the topics discussed. In addition, Dr. Rogers provides an excellent analysis of his recently published State of the Oceans 2013 report which is available here. In it Dr. Rogers explores ongoing threats to the world ocean system resulting from human activity and carbon emissions to include ocean acidification, increasing instances of ocean anoxia (both in the deep ocean and near coastlines), as well as the ongoing impacts caused by over-fishing. Rogers also hints at the growing problem of ocean stratification which combines with a warming ocean system to greatly increase anoxia.

State of the Oceans

(Link to 2013 State of the Oceans report here)

Perhaps most alarming is his explanation that fish species such as marlin are already altering their migration patterns due to changes in ocean water oxygen content — an ominous sign that we are already moving to a more stratified ocean state.

For reference, the following blogs will be helpful to those listening:

August 2013: Hottest Ocean Temperatures on Record Defy ENSO, Spur Continental Deluges

Growth Shock and our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation, Adaptation or Harm

A Requiem for Flooded Cities: Russian Flood Disaster Worsens, Amur River to Hit 30 Feet

I Have A Confession to Make: We Are In Trouble

The Methane Monster Grows New Teeth: Sea Level Rise Found to Cause Methane Release, Tsunamis, Slope Collapse

A Song of Flood and Fire

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse, Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

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

Climate Change Alarm is Needed and Climate Scientists Aren’t Sounding it Loud Enough

Alarmist. It’s a term climate change deniers seem to bandy about often, these days, as if ‘alarm’ were some kind of bad word. As if alarm weren’t needed or necessary. As if climate change, a primary vehicle for a range of horrors ranging from mass extinctions to catastrophic Earth changes, were some kind of carnival ride or a happy walk in the park.

But what if alarm is entirely called for? What if, for example, you’re standing in or near a river and a massive glacial melt lake up-stream has suddenly released and an immense torrent is now rushing toward you (as happened to thousands in India this year). Would you want the person on the hill near shore who sees the onrushing water to say in a calm, steady voice:

“Hey, you might want to get out. That water could rise a little.”

Or, even worse, would you want them to say, as the deniers would:

“It’s all good. The water’s just fine for swimming.”

Is either of these responses appropriate?

How about just shouting:

“Megaflood on the way! Get the hell out!!”

The IPCC is version #1. The oil company dupes and lackeys are version #2. As for version #3 …

A Call For Climate Change Urgency

One fundamental point a rational observer of the ongoing catastrophe that is human-caused climate change should always keep in mind is that scientists are, by nature and as a group, very conservative. It’s one reason why science, in general, is not a very good indicator of alarm to an emerging crisis. Science is constantly checking itself, is rightfully uncertain about the nature of truth, is constantly challenging its own assumptions. This refinement is a needed part of the improvement of human knowledge. But this process, often, creates a marked underestimation of potentially large-scale events.

Take the cases of sea level rise, Arctic sea ice melt, human CO2 emissions, and ice sheet response over the last 30 years. The combined report of consensus science represented by the IPCC has consistently underestimated rates of loss or increase for all of the above. In short, the best description of past IPCC reports on climate change, and their related forecasts, could be that they were, overall, conservative, muted, and mild when compared to the changes that are being observed now.

The IPCC’s reports are so muted, in fact, that they tend to leave us very vulnerable to what can best be termed as catastrophic events that are ever-more likely as the vicious and violent pace of human greenhouse gas forcing continues to progress. In prognostication of these potential events, the IPCC is an abject failure. It does not take into account the very high likelihood that, if you push the world climate to warm faster than it ever has before, and if you hit temperature increases of 2, 4, 6 degrees Celsius within 30, 50, 100 years that set off Heinrich Events, large Earth system carbon responses (catastrophic CO2 and methane release), rapid sea level rise, and ocean anoxia (dead oceans) in the past, then you are likely to get at least some of these events coming into play over the next 100 years. Yet the IPCC does not issue a report on overall ocean anoxia, or the potential risk for catastrophic ice sheet collapse, or what might result from a massive methane and carbon release from a very rapidly thawing Arctic that is now liberating a massive carbon store to such violent processes as Arctic heatwaves, a raging pace of sea level rise, or a great and explosive outburst of wildfires.

Should the IPCC issue such reports, it might warrant the observation that it had sounded an alarm. But, then, it would be sounding a needed and necessary warning, one that was entirely outside the pejorative ‘Alarmist’ deniers so recklessly bandy at any hint of warning to an obvious and dangerous set of events. One entirely pertinent to the current age of rapid fossil fuel burning and rates of warming that are 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.

Sometimes, alarm is what is needed and absolutely called for.

In short, the scientists should be screaming at us to:

“Get the hell out!”

***

Related Reading:

NASA Scientist James Hansen:

“I suggest that a `scientific reticence’ is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control. I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level change issue.”

Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise

(Hat tip to Sourabh)

Yedoma Region of Russia Showing Significant Methane Pulse

August 7 Methane Pulse, Yedoma

August 7 Methane Pulse, Yedoma

(Image source: Methane Tracker)

August 4-7 saw a large and growing pulse of methane emerging from the Yedoma region of Russia and the Siberian Arctic over the past week. By Wednesday, about 30 percent of the Yedoma region was covered in methane readings exceeding 1950 parts per billion, according to measurements published through the online resource — Methane Tracker.

This pulse emerged in conjuction with late summer fires and heatwaves scorching this massive region of permafrost above or near the Arctic Circle. Yedoma includes a broad expanse of permafrost ranging from Siberia to a shallow sea known as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. In total, this region is estimated to hold 500 gigatons of carbon locked in, now thawing, tundra.

The region has come under increased scrutiny and study during recent years as temperatures throughout the Arctic and especially in this area have rapidly risen due to human warming. While global temperatures have increased by an average of around .2 degrees Celsius per decade, temperatures in Yedoma have increased by more than twice that rate at a whopping .5 degrees Celsius per decade. As a result, most of the tundra, both land and shallow sea, is subjected to increasing heat forcing and is at greater risk of releasing large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

The geographic region of Yedoma and its related loess layers are indicated on the map below. Note the large off-shore region extending into the East Siberian Arctic Shelf:

Yedoma Map with loess deposits.

Yedoma Map with loess deposits.

(Image source: Ole Log)

Originally, it was estimated that Yedoma released about 4 megatons of carbon each year. Instead, recent expeditions have found that the region releases a staggering 44 megatons of CO2 and an estimated 4 megatons of methane. The CO2 emission alone is greater than that pumped out by 1 million automobiles and, since methane is so powerful a greenhouse gas, the forcing provided by the 4 megaton methane emission is nearly twice that.

Recent studies conducted by N. Shakhova have estimated that as much as 50 gigatons of the methane locked in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf could rapidly destabilize and emit over a brief period of 1-50 years. The Shakhova paper is refuted by another scientific paper produced by C. Ruppel who claims that the global .2 degree Celsius temperature increase each decade is not enough forcing for a rapid release. Peter Wadhams, who produced a recent article for Nature, refutes these findings noting that temperatures in the Arctic are warming faster than the global average and that sea ice losses can result in very strong, if briefer, temperature spikes during summer months that provide a powerful forcing to the sub-sea methane. Wadhams observations are refuted by other scientists — notably Gavin Schmidt and David Archer, who favor a slow release scenario based on what they have seen in various climate models.

In context to this scientific argument is the well supported theory that methane release contributed to rapid warming during past global heating events such as the PETM and the Permian-Triassic.

Nevertheless, we have seen a rising methane emission from the Arctic over the past decade. These increases are not indicative of the extraordinarily rapid release Shakhova has warned is possible. But they are still rapid enough to raise local methane levels by a rate of 5-10 parts per billion each year — nearly twice the global rate of increase. What this rate shows is that Arctic methane emissions are occurring at a faster pace and at relatively higher volumes than those in the rest of the world.

The Yedoma spike chronicled above by Methane Tracker is a troubling, though not catastrophic, occurrence. It appears during a time when high temperatures and wildfires are affecting a large region of Yedoma where we see the methane pulse. It is possible that methane seeping up through the tundra from anaerobic pockets where methane-producing bacteria can thrive are venting into the atmosphere as the tundra thaws. During times of high heat forcing, such as periods of late summer at times when human warming has induced more and more Arctic heatwaves, higher volumes of this methane are at risk of venting into the atmosphere. In some places, the methane concentrations are high enough to ignite in fires, as we have seen in numerous melt ponds across the Arctic. In the presence of wildfires driven by Arctic heatwaves, a high rate of methane emission creates a volatile additive to an already anomalous situation.

Major Wildfire Outbreak in the Region of Yedoma and Siberian Russia

Major Wildfire Outbreak in the Region of Yedoma and Siberian Russia

(Image source: NASA/Lance-Modis)

Whether or not catastrophic methane spikes of the kind Shakhova and Wadhams warn of will result from human forcing, it is likely that methane and related CO2 emissions will continue to increase throughout the Arctic and at rates far faster than is correlated in the climate record over the past 800,000 years. The carbon store there is vast, and the rate of forcing increase is far faster than at any time in the geological record. For reference, it took about 8,000 years for the Earth to warm out of the last ice age. Temperature increases averaged at a rate of .006 degrees Celsius per decade during this time. The current rate of human-cased warming is more than 30 times that. Yet even with this very slow level of forcing we find atmospheric CO2 and methane levels rising significantly over the ice age to interglacial transition period — with CO2 rising by 100 ppm and methane rising by 300 ppb.

The fact that even such slow forcings can result in such significant responses should serve as a warning when we consider the current, very rapid human temperature forcing. A related, more rapid, Earth Systems methane feedback could quickly overwhelm sinks and provide a much higher relative atmospheric methane level. Meanwhile, as we consider this, very valid, concern, we observe significant and rising methane emissions from the Arctic’s most vulnerable stores. Given these two very valid concerns, it is both prudent and rational to identify rising methane emissions as a current and growing threat.

***

Related: Arctic Methane and Why Sea Ice Matters

Links:

Methane: From Obscurity to Super-Stardom, by Gavin Schmidt

It’s All About Frozen Ground — NSIDC

Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere by Natalie Shakhova

Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change by Carolyn Ruppel

The Vast Costs of Arctic Change by Chris Hope, Peter Wadhams and Gail Whiteman

Dissolved Organic Carbon Loss From Yedoma Amplified by Ice Wedge Thaw

Kudos to:

Colorado Bob

Prokaryotes

A4R (Methane Tracker)

Large, Troubling Methane Pulse Coincides With Arctic Heatwave, Tundra Fires

Siberian Heatwave July 23

Temperature color graphic. Areas in red indicate temperatures in the range of 77-86 degrees (Fahrenheit) but may not fully capture daily maximum temperatures.

(Image source: Arctic Weather Maps)

During a murder investigation, sometimes you find traces of smoke from a gun fired in relation to the crime. In other cases, sometimes you find the gun itself. Even more rarely, do you find a smoking gun dropped at a still fresh crime scene. Such was the case with the Arctic today.

The crime scene: another anomalous Arctic heat wave. The suspect: human caused climate change. The accessory: Arctic amplification. The smoking gun: major methane emission in the Arctic.

****

Yesterday, I reported that a large Arctic heat wave had settled over Siberia, once again setting off tundra fires. The heat wave was so intense that it pushed temperatures in a range of 77 to 86 degrees all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean even as it caused numerous massive blazes to emerge both on open tundra and throughout Siberia’s boreal forests. Atmospheric conditions — a Jet Stream mangled by human caused climate change and a large heat dome had enabled the formation of this heat wave.

But now we find something even more ominous than evidence that human global warming is moving the Jet Stream about all while pushing polar amplification into such a high gear that the terms ‘Arctic Heat Wave’ and ‘Tundra Fire’ have now become common meteorological parlance. And that thing is a large and disturbing methane pulse.

Methanesiberia7-23-13_zps5be4f30e

(Image source: Methane Tracker)

On July 21-23, a large methane emission in which numerous sources caused atmospheric spikes to greater than 1950 parts per billion flared over a wide region of Arctic Russia and the Kara Sea. This event was so massive that an area of about 500 x 500 miles was nearly completely filled with these higher readings even as a much broader region, stretching about 2,000 miles in length and about 800 miles at its widest, experienced scores of large pulses. You can see a visual representation of these emissions in yellow on the image above, provided by Methane Tracker which compiles data provided by NASA’s Aqua Satellite.

As noted above, this major event coincided with a large Arctic heat wave and numerous tundra fires that raged throughout the region. Another unprecedented occurrence in a summer of strange weather and mangled climate.

Conditions in Context

Average global methane levels are currently around 1830 parts per billion (Mauna Loa surface data). This level, about 1130 parts per billion higher than the pre-industrial average of 700 parts per billion represents an additional global warming forcing equal to at least 28% of the added CO2 forcing provided by humans. It has long been a concern among scientists that the Arctic environment, as it is forced to warm by human-caused climate change, would emit an additional significant volume of methane from carbon stocks locked in tundra and in methane stores sequestered on the sea bed. Since methane has between 25 and 105 times the heating potential of CO2, the possible added additional warming is quite substantial.

In the 2000s, a number of Arctic researchers found disturbing evidence of methane emissions coming directly from the Arctic environment. In 2013, NASA began its CARVE mission to more clearly define the Arctic’s response to human-caused warming. Its preliminary research has found methane plumes as large as 150 miles across.

Overall, the Arctic environment is already clearly adding its own methane to the global mix. We can see this in local Arctic methane measurements that average around 1900 parts per billion and above in many Arctic locations. These readings are about 70 parts per billion above the global average. This week’s large methane pulse where a broad region experienced methane levels of 1950 to 1980 parts per billion is yet more evidence that the Arctic is beginning to provide a dangerous and troubling amplifying feedback to the already break-neck pace of human warming. In total, around 2,500 gigatons of methane are thought to be locked in carbon stores both in the Arctic tundra and in hydrates (frozen methane and water) on the Arctic Ocean floor.

Though a dangerous and troubling addition to a human-caused warming that is already changing the world’s weather in harmful and damaging ways, this particular methane pulse is not yet evidence of runaway global warming. In a runaway, Arctic methane emissions would likely exceed 500 megatons per year, which would be enough to raise global levels by about 150 parts per billion or more annually. Such a runaway would be a global nightmare requiring an unprecedented human response if Earth’s life support systems were to be preserved in any rough corollary to what we enjoy today. Though such an event is probably still low-risk (but perhaps as high as 10-20 percent), it cannot be entirely ruled out due to the speed and violence at which human greenhouse gas emissions are altering Earth systems.

So the prudent course would be for a rapid response as if such an event were imminent. The reason is that a runaway methane emission in the Arctic would cause severe and untold damage and harm.

To this point, Peter Wadhams is warning that about 50 gigatons of methane are at risk of rapidly destabilizing should the Arctic sea ice melt in the next two years. The region in which these methane stores are locked is the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, a shallow sea that is very vulnerable to rapid warming and methane release. Wadhams notes:

The loss of sea ice leads to seabed warming, which leads to offshore permafrost melt , which leads to methane release, which leads to enhanced warming, which leads to even more rapid uncovering of seabed. If a large release has not occurred by 2016 the danger will be continuously increasing. It is thought that at 2-3C of global warming, which means 6-8C of Arctic warming, methane release from permafrost on land will be greatly increased.

Those who understand Arctic seabed geology and the oceanography of water column warming from ice retreat do not say that this is a low probability event. I think one should trust those who know about a subject rather than those who don’t. As far as I’m concerned, the experts in this area are the people who have been actively working on the seabed conditions in the East Siberian Sea in summer during the past few summers where the ice cover has disappeared and the water has warmed. The rapid disappearance of offshore permafrost through water heating is a unique phenomenon, so clearly no “expert” would have found a mechanism elsewhere to compare with this.

Perhaps, equally troubling, is that large regions of permafrost are now also thawing. In the Hudson Bay region, an area that saw unprecedented heat, dry conditions and wildfires this year, permafrost temperatures have risen by .45 degrees Celsius. Peter Kershaw, an adjunct professor of earth sciences at the University of Alberta, who was in Churchill recently on a research project noted:

“It’s a big concern and so far not well-quantified. That organic material is being made available for decomposition. It’s out of the freezer and sitting on the counter.”

Though most climate scientists do not currently believe that such a rapid release of methane is possible over such a short period, we do have to ask ourselves — what if Wadhams and others like him are right? In such a case we could see a catastrophic warming of up to 5 degrees C by 2050, far beyond anything mainstream models or paleoclimate would suggest. But the human rate of climate forcing that is now more than ten times anything seen during the geological record puts us in a context that is entirely out of previous reckoning. So these warnings by Wadhams should be listened to, heeded, and taken into account. (Hat Tip to commenter Colorado Bob for the head’s up on these articles).

More likely, however, is that a combination of methane release from the tundra and the ocean floor and a loss of albedo (reflectivity) due to ice sheet loss will result in an effective doubling or more of the initial human greenhouse gas forcing over the coming decades and centuries. Such a response is still very dangerous in that it risks locking in, long term, already damaging changes to the world’s environments. Should the Earth System fully respond to the 400 ppm CO2 and 1830 ppb methane we’ve already achieved through our emissions , we can expect at least a 3 degree Celsius global temperature increase and long-term sea level rise of between 25 and 75 feet. Such changes would severely damage both human infrastructure and the environments upon which human-based agriculture depend for its now vast food production. In addition, a 24% increase in the hydrological cycle and a number of destabilizing changes to the world’s weather systems would cause severe added damage.

A rapid Earth Systems feedback response risks these changes at current greenhouse gas levels. And since we are now seeing both methane release and ice sheet response, a level of these feedbacks are already in play, showing a far greater risk than initial forecasts indicated. Further greenhouse gas emissions risk even more damaging potentials, possibly locking in ever-greater consequences. For this reason, any global policy that does not seek to fully mitigate such new and over-riding risks by planning a complete phase out of carbon emissions is an unconscionable policy to open the door to immeasurable harm to human lives and the living systems of our world upon which we depend.

These first methane burps are a warning for us to act now, before our capacity to act is seriously degraded and before events start to spiral beyond the point of rational control. We have had other warnings which we have, so far, mostly ignored. And though the responses by the Obama Administration and World Bank to de-fund new coal plants are encouraging, we should redouble our efforts now, lest we enter an age of bitter regret as the consequences of our carbon emission form a trap that is difficult or impossible to escape.

Scientific Debate Over Arctic Methane Release Emerges: Long Tail Or Large Pulse?

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of conflicting scientific reports analyzing the amplifying methane release currently underway in the Arctic. Since this field of study is relatively new, it has been difficult to develop a consensus between the various studies and observations. But now, a distinct set of camps is beginning to emerge.

With the recent publication of a report headed by Katey Anthony, a scientific view has crystalized around the notion that Arctic methane release will be gradual, linear, and result in a long tail of amplification to human caused global warming over the time-scale of decades to centuries. This view, headed by David Archer at the climate blog Realclimate, has formed one side of the Arctic Methane debate among scientists. The result, according to Archer, would be a long-term increase in atmospheric carbon.

Anthony’s study focused on methane seeps at the edge of glaciers and at the boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw. The primary region of study was Alaska, with some secondary research occurring in Greenland. Given this focus, Anthony found that methane emissions from these sources in the Arctic were double that expected by scientists. Anthony also found that methane emission was most rapid at the leading edge of glacial melt and rapidly tapered off after melting ceased.

The result was that the findings showed that rate of methane release, from glaciers and permafrost at least, is directly tied to the overall rate of melt. So, in the context of this study, your view of the potential for methane release depends the pace of glacial and permafrost thaw.

Analysis of Anthony’s paper by David Archer led him to conclude that: “the general response time of the system is slow, decades to centuries, rather than potentially poised to release a huge pulse of methane within a few years.” This conclusion is consistent with Archer’s view of a relatively gradual and linear melt down in the Arctic glacier and permafrost system. His scientific view, thus far, has been for a gradual contribution of Arctic carbon to the climate system with the ultimate deposition of a substantial portion of the 1200+ gigatons of Arctic carbon into the atmosphere over the relative long-term.

“The 1200 Gton C of Arctic methane hydrates and the permafrost carbon stack up pretty menacingly against our 700 Gton left to go, and the comparison is relevant even if the carbon is emitted slowly, or as CO2 rather than methane, or even if it is released into the ocean rather than into the air.”

Overall, this is not an entirely optimistic view. It is instead the argument for slowly amplifying Arctic methane emissions rather than large pulse emissions. The result being that the Arctic contributes a ‘long tail’ of amplification to an already worsening climate picture. Under Archer’s model, there is more time to change, but the end results of long-term human greenhouse gas emissions are the same.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt some of the premises for Archer’s view. As already noted, Archer implies that glacial and tundra melt will be gradual. Archer also seems to imply that releases from hydrates will also be gradual and not necessarily breach the sea surface. But rates of tundra and glacial melt are already amplifying. Meanwhile, observations from some regions of the Arctic already imply increases in the volume of methane reaching the air with the largest methane emissions structures seen on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Some of these massive structures measured more than a kilometer across.

And while there is some argument as to whether these large methane structures are new or have existed over long periods of time, we have seen satellite data that show an increasing Arctic methane emission over the past 9 years. Heating in the Arctic has been very rapid. And we have already seen nonlinear melt in the Arctic sea ice.

Overall, the context of these conditions is for a very energetic Arctic environment. One that pushes toward non-linear melt, not for a gradual loss of the icy methane cap. The result of these forces have caused some scientists, including Shakhova, to estimate that it is possible for large methane pulses to form in the Arctic during rapid periods of melt and heating. These pulses, Shakhova notes, could be as large as 50 gigatons and could occur during relatively short time-frames. Since the current atmospheric concentration of methane is only 5 gigatons, and since methane is at least 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, a 50 gigaton pulse would have serious impacts for amplifying the already powerful forcing of human-caused warming.

The fact that non-linear responses to global warming have already been established in the recent history of Arctic melt would seem to point to a not insignificant potential for Shakhova’s view bearing out. However, this does not mean that Archer paints a rosey picture either. The two views represent a range of possibilities for Arctic melt and methane release from ratcheting long-term harm, to potential devastating releases in the relative near term — years to decades rather than decades to centuries.

Outside of climate change denial, this is the debate we should currently be having about the impacts of human climate change to the Arctic ice-methane system. And this debate, between bad and worse potentials, draws a dramatic line under the need for rapid human carbon emission reductions now.

For the near-term, years to decades, let us hope that Archer is correct and there is more time for the slow-moving human system to respond to the rather dangerous changes we’re already causing to our climate.

Links:

http://www.realclimate.org/

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/09/27/501221/arctic-methane-release-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it/#comment-494331

http://geosci.uchicago.edu/people/archer.shtml

http://www.skepticalscience.com/arctic-methane-outgassing-e-siberian-shelf-part2.html

 

Arctic Methane Concentration for August 2012 Shows Jump From August 2011, Part of Larger Arctic Trend

Satellite observations from the University of Maryland are showing strong increases in Arctic methane concentration between August 2011 and August 2012. In our first monthly assessment of these differences, we will analyze their strength as well as the possible implications for Arctic and global warming scenarios.

The atmospheric methane concentration image for August 2012 is:

The methane concentration image for August 2011 is:

And the baseline image established in August of 2003 is:

This sequence shows that average methane levels around the Arctic for the month of August have increased by about 10 parts per billion (ppb) since last year and 20 ppb since the record began in 2008. Values for much of the Arctic in August have ranged between 1840 and 1860 ppb this year as compared to 1830 to 1850 ppb last year and 1820 to 1840 ppb in 2003.

The highest concentrations of methane were found in Siberia and extreme northern Europe with Alaska, Canada, and points in the Arctic Ocean showing elevated levels as well.

As we can see from these satellite observations, the trend since August of 2003 has been for increasing methane concentrations in the Arctic. Methane is much more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. So this methane increase in the Arctic is adding heating on top of an already increasing CO2 forcing. And though the amount of additional methane for the month of August does not approach the additional forcing of human CO2 emissions, the rate of increase has jumped by an order of magnitude. The result is that the extra methane forcing from 2011 to 2012 in the Arctic environment is equal to about .25 to 1 ppm CO2, adding between 12% and 50% on top of the CO2 increase in the same period. It is worth noting that most of this increase is local to the Arctic environment, so the effect on overall global warming would be less.

But, perhaps, of greatest concern is the fact that the increase in one year — from 2011 to 2012, is equivalent to the entire increase of the eight years spanning 2003-2011. Any similar jump would result in an increase in the methane forcing to possibly exceed the rate of increase in the CO2 forcing. Adding such an effect to loss of reflectivity due to sea ice and snow cover melt would result in greatly increased Arctic heating along with a number of worsening extreme weather and glacial melting effects far exceeding the impacts we see today.

The primary driver of Arctic methane release is a warming climate caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. As ice melts, methane is released from Arctic tundra and soils frozen for thousands, tens of thousands and, sometimes, millions of years. In addition, as seas warm, methane hydrates destabilize and bubble up from the sea bed. Heating is also amplified as the ice sheets retreat, resulting in a loss of albedo, or reflectivity. Dark seas and darker land masses absorb more of the sun’s radiation, causing more warming in turn. The effect returns again to do work liberating more methane and CO2 which again results in more heat.

This is a powerful feedback loop that is enhancing warming in the Arctic while adding more greenhouse gasses to Earth’s atmosphere. The above methane data, provided by the University of Maryland, provides us with one more way of measuring the heat amplification going on in the Arctic.

Learn more about amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic here.

Links:

http://asl.umbc.edu/pub/yurganov/methane/MAPS/NH/ARCTpolar2003.08._AIRS_CH4_400.jpg

How Arctic Sea Ice Melt is Amplifying the Problem of Human-Caused Warming

Image

We are getting ourselves into a rather severe fix. Arctic sea ice is melting at a very rapid rate and changes are happening to the Arctic environment at a pace much faster than that expected by many scientists. These observable changes to the world’s climate were predicted. It is just the rate at which they are happening which is so startling.

The most conservative, early, predictions estimated sea ice would average around 8 million square kilometers by the end of the melt season in 2012. Even the later, more aggressive, models showed an average of about 5.5 million square kilometers by this year. In the record, according to the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), we are currently sitting at less than 4 million square kilometers of sea ice — with more than two weeks still remaining in the melt season. This is twice the average melt predicted as near back as a year ago. And the current model predictions are still woefully behind.

This lagging of prediction behind the pace of change is a simple underestimation, by mainstream climate scientists, of how sensitive the Earth is to the force of human greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a broader failure of society to encourage scientists to do the work necessary to protect the long-term interests of our civilizations. Instead, we have allowed monied interests to engage in vicious, politically-driven attacks on the scientists who should be the watch-dogs against the harm caused by human global warming.

In short, based on current observations, the climate system in the Arctic appears to be extremely sensitive to the human greenhouse forcing. And, as such, it is rapidly changing, altering in ways that will further worsen the already serious impact of human-caused climate change.

This foreseen impact could have been prevented had we received a more immediate and widely trumpeted warning, had we gathered the political will to act, and had the monied interests not decided to wage a war on the future for a few temporary and transient gains. Instead, we are now injected into a world where constant change is becoming the norm. Instead, we must fend off powerful, entrenched interests in order to have an inkling of hope to prevent the worst impacts even as we expect strong impacts for some time to come.

Loss of Sea Ice Reflectivity

The first impact of drastically smaller sea ice coverage is a loss of reflectivity or albedo. The sun is almost always in the Arctic sky during the summer months. This 24-hour shine beams down on all surfaces of the Arctic. And the darker surface of water absorbs much more of that solar energy than the white, reflective surfaces of an ice sheet.

Research has found that water is, on average, five degrees Celsius hotter under open ocean than under the white, reflective covering of an ice sheet. As more and more areas open up, they absorb more and more of the sun’s energy creating a much hotter Arctic environment. And, currently, we have about half the ice cover we enjoyed during the 1980s.

Loss of Late Season Snow Cover

As the Arctic Ocean warms, more air is warmed above the waters. These hotter airs then blow over land, warming it as well. The result is that snow cover in the high Arctic is reduced. 2012 saw the lowest level of snow cover on record.

Snow produces an effect similar to that of Arctic sea ice. It reflects the sun’s rays resulting in much cooler temperatures in regions of high snow cover. It also keeps the ground beneath it much colder. And ground beneath snows in the Arctic tend to be methane-trapping permafrost.

Land without snow cover is also darker than snow. So areas where high snow melt occurs will heat faster, having higher than average temperatures and breaking down the permafrost layer beneath.

Changing Weather Patterns

Recent research has found that the change in wind patterns brought about by melting sea ice and a warmer Arctic drastically alter the Jet Stream. The result is a tendency of the Jet Stream to travel in larger waves from north to south. In addition to creating ‘blocking patterns’ in the mid latitudes, these elongated atmospheric waves dig deeper into the temperate zones, sometimes touching the tropics. And when they do they create a powerful transport mechanism for moving hot air into the Arctic. The result is an even greater degree of amplification in Arctic heating.

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(Image credit: Geophysical Research Letters)

Permafrost Methane Release

All this new hot air swirling about in the Arctic drastically increases the rate of melting both in the sea ice and on land. Eventually, the heat sinks into the soil where it does work melting permafrost.

All around the Arctic circle we have seen the effects of melting permafrost. Structures have crumbled as the soil beneath becomes softer. Coastlines, once hard as stone, are now just mud and are eaten away by a freshly churning Arctic sea. Throughout the wild Arctic, permafrost melt lakes have formed and these lakes seep high volumes of methane.

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(Image credit: Energy BC)

The added methane throughout the Arctic increases fire hazards. High concentrations of methane are very flammable and may combust due to a lightning strike or as a result of the spontaneous heating of a balmy day. And throughout the Arctic we have seen a drastic increase in the rate of fires. Just this year, Siberia saw massive blazes devour miles and miles of tundra and Arctic wilderness.

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(Image credit: NASA)

A vast amount of carbon is stored in the Arctic permafrost as well as in the forests and tundras above. A National Snow and Ice Data Center study conducted in 2008 found that from 1400-1700 gigatons of carbon were locked in frozen soils worldwide and that much of these soils were in the Arctic. NSIDC estimates that warming could result in carbon releases from Arctic soil equal to 15-35 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, China emitted about 29% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. The human forcing in the Arctic could, in the case of frozen permafrost alone, add another China worth of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere every year.

Yet a large portion of this carbon emission would come from methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. So even if a third of this added emission were methane, it could easily double the human forcing.

Clathrate Methane Release

Sadly, the permafrost, soils, and forests in the Arctic aren’t the only source of methane in the region. Large deposits of a substance called clathrates or methane hydrates rest upon or just beneath the Arctic sea bed. The clathrates are essentially frozen formations of methane combined with water. They tend to be rather unstable and sensitive to heating. In an Arctic ocean that is increasingly ice-free during the summer months, the water column can warm by as much as five degrees Celsius. This extra heating has the potential to destabilize clathrate formations.

About 1400 gigatons of methane is stored in clathrates. This is roughly equal to the amount stored in permafrost worldwide. So this potential added forcing combines with methane and carbon releases from the Arctic tundra.

Evidence of Amplifying Methane Release

Over the past four years, researchers have found a wealth of evidence pointing toward an amplified methane release in the Arctic. Atmospheric methane levels are on the rise.

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(Image credit: NOAA)

A proliferating number of methane emitting ponds have been found throughout the Arctic. Large areas of ocean, especially in the East Siberian Sea, are emitting high volumes of methane. Underwater plumes of methane as large as one kilometer across have been discovered. And recent satellite research conducted by the University of Maryland shows that the amount of methane released from the Arctic is amplifying year-on-year.

The Next Domino to Fall: Greenland

The Arctic amplification described above is likely to have another non-linear affect — increasing direct impacts to Greenland ice melt. Loss of sea ice substantially reduces a buffer surrounding Greenland. In the past, sea ice served to block the flow of warm air masses and to protect Greenland from pulses of heat coming from the south. This was clearly not the case this summer when a very warm air mass repeatedly formed over Greenland, drastically increasing melt there.

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(Image credit: NOAA)

Blocking patterns also have a tendency to park over Greenland, consistently funneling in warmer air from the south. Loss of permafrost and snow cover along with increased atmospheric methane create a witch’s brew of heat that could all result in a state-change in Greenland.

It is important to consider that loss of sea ice, though an important and devastating loss, results in relatively moderate impacts to human society when compared with Greenland ice loss. Imagine, for a moment, the loss of fifty percent of Greenland ice in a few decades. The result would be an 11 foot sea level rise. Now there are no scientific models or observations saying this will happen. But there were no models that estimated sea ice loss would be this rapid either. And though the mile-high glaciers of Greenland aren’t as likely to suffer from the same widely varied set of forces affecting sea ice, they are certainly not impenetrable. The issue here is that the risk to Greenland is high and the impacts, should the worst risks bear out, are very high.

It is worth re-emphasizing that after sea ice, should human greenhouse gas emissions not be vastly curtailed, Greenland will be the next domino to fall. And when it does, it will be almost impossible for the world to ignore.

Arctic Cooling Cycle Changing to Arctic Heating Cycle

The net effect of all these changes: Arctic sea ice melt, permafrost melt, methane release, and Greenland melt is that the cooling mechanism of the Arctic is being transformed into a warming mechanism. As we added greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere we relied on these cooling mechanisms to help maintain a stable climate and to prevent the worst impacts of human greenhouse gas heating. Now, these mechanisms have been forced by human climate change to a new a phase. A phase where they increasingly add to the problem, resulting in a powerful amplifying feedback, that will be more and more difficult to reign in should we continue to fail to respond.

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