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The Permafrost is Thawing 20 Percent Faster Than Previously Thought

Even in a world at 1 to 1.2 C warmer than 19th Century averages the permafrost is in trouble.

Already, vast thawed lands are starting to release carbon dioxide and methane. Thermokarst lakes bubble with the stuff. And pingos are now starting to erupt as the ice relinquishes the soils of Siberia. Russians, ironically concerned about the safety of an oil and gas infrastructure that helped to precipitate the warming in the first place, are starting to install seismographs to detect these new warming-induced eruptions from the thawed lands. Meanwhile, each new summer brings with it ridiculously warm temperatures, never before seen Arctic thunderstorms, and epic wildfires that rage over these growing piles of peat-like carbon laid down during the course of millions of years of glaciation — but now unlocked in just years and decades by an unnatural thaw.

Permafrost Thawing at 20 Percent Faster Rate Than We Previously Thought

Back in the late 1800s, permafrost covered about 17 million square kilometers of the Northern Hemisphere. In less than 150 years, that extent has been reduced by 2 million square kilometers due to the warming that has, to date, been produced by fossil fuel burning and related carbon emissions. Even worse, according to the new research, present temperatures alone are enough to, this Century, push permafrost coverage back to 12.5 million square kilometers.

That’s about 1/4 of the world’s permafrost gone due to just 1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius of global warming.

(A new study shows that 2 C worth of warming nearly cuts preindustrial permafrost extent in half to around 9 million square kilometers. Warming to 6 C above 1880s averages, which will occur so long as fossil fuel burning continues, will wipe out nearly all of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost. These thaw rates are about 20 percent more than previously estimated. Image source: An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming.)

Warm the world by just another degree Celsius to 2 C above 1880s averages and, according to the new research, we’ll end up thawing another 3.5 million square kilometers of frozen ground to an ultimately reduced area of around 9 million square kilometers — cutting the Northern Hemisphere’s original permafrost coverage nearly in half.

Still More Urgency For Rapid Cuts to Fossil Fuel Burning

This newly identified permafrost thaw rate in response to human-forced warming is much faster than previously expected — representing a 20 percent acceleration compared to past permafrost thaw model estimates. And since the frozen ground of the world contains 1.2 to 1.4 trillion tons of carbon locked away over the course of millions of years, so rapid a thaw has big implications in a world warmed by fossil fuel burning.

(Wildfires burn through Siberia during August of 2014. Thawing permafrost lays bare billions of tons of carbon that can then be subject to release by microbes and the warming elements. Bacteria can break down the carbon — releasing methane and CO2. Thawed permafrost also forms a peat-like layer that can burn as more extensive fires rage across the heating Arctic. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Back in 2015, scientists estimated that about 100 billion tons of permafrost carbon would hit the atmosphere over the course of the 21st Century due to human-forced warming. This warming feedback is equivalent to about 10 years of present fossil fuel emissions. Add an estimated 20 percent extrapolated from a faster than expected thaw to that rate and you end up with roughly 120 billion tons of carbon — or 12 years of present emissions bubbling and bursting up out of that previously frozen ground (approximately 40 ppm of CO2e heat forcing as feedback to the present warming).

It’s just another scientific finding of warming-related geophysical impacts occurring on timescales that were faster than previously expected. Still more added proof, as if we required any, that the need for cutting human fossil fuel emissions couldn’t be greater or more urgent. And when seismographs are now being constructed to detect permafrost methane bursts due to pingo detonations, it’s becoming more and more clear that we do not want to precipitate any more volatile Arctic thaw than we’ve already locked in.

Links:

An observation-based constraint on permafrost loss as a function of global warming

Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

LANCE-MODIS

First Seismic Sensor Installed to Detect New Risk of Exploding Pingos

Hat tip to Ryan in New England

Hat tip to Wili

Hat tip to Unnaturalfx

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

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

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

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

Radiative Forcing

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

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

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

Methane Spikes to Over 3,000 parts per Billion

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

Metop methane

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

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

The Usual Suspects — Fossil Fuel Based Activity

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

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

Unusual Suspects — Permafrost and Clathrate Warmed by Fossil Fuel Emissions

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

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

Barrow methane

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

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

A Clearer Picture? Or One Far More Complex?

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

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

Global Surface Methane Readings Copernicus

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

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

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

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

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

Links:

CO2: The Thermostat That Controls Earth’s Temperature

Ominous Arctic Methane Spike Continues

Huge Methane Spike Coming from US Fracking

Methane Release From Frozen Permafrost Could Trigger Dangerous Global Warming

Concern over Catastrophic Methane Release

A4R Global Methane Tracking

The Copernicus Observatory

NOAA ESRL

RealClimate

NOAA/METOP

Hat Tip to Griffin

Is This the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun? Second Mysterious Hole Found in Yamal Russia

They call it ‘the end of the Earth.’

Yamal, Russia — a stretch of tundra flats and peat bogs stretching as far as the eye can see before terminating into the chill waters of the Kara. A rather stark and desolate place, one that was mostly unknown until a massive and strange hole appeared in the earth there last week. Since that time, the strange hole has been the butt of every kind of wild speculation and controversy.

Yamal Siberia

(MODIS satellite shot of Yamal Siberia — the peninsula located in center frame and recent site of mysterious holes that may have been caused by the catastrophic destabilization of thawing methane gas embedded in the permafrost. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The hole itself was an alien feature. “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” would be an entirely accurate statement. All about the hole was a large pile of debris — overturned earth, huge chunks of soil piled up in a signature very familiar to the ejecta of a meteor impact crater.

Approaching the hole edge, we came to a gradual slope that proceeded downward for about 40 feet at about a 35 degree incline. Along the surface of this incline, both the unfrozen soil cap and the frozen permafrost were visible.

But it wasn’t until we hit the bottom edge of this incline that we encountered the strangest feature of all — a sheer cliff, rounded in a shape like the smooth bore of a gun, and plunging straight down through icy permafrost for about another hundred and twenty feet before revealing a basement cavern slowly filling with melt.

It’s a combination of features that appears to be one half impact crater and one half sink hole.

Russia Siberia Crater

(The freakish combination of features including apparent ejecta piled around a crater with a sheer tunnel coring 220 feet down. Image source: The Siberian Times)

One theory on the feature is that it might be a pingo — a melting of a permafrost water pocket left over by an ancient lake that was long ago buried by sediment. But a pingo would typically form in a manner similar to a sinkhole and would probably not have apparent ejected material piled around its mouth.

Another theory, advanced by Russian Arctic scientists, is that a pocket of gas beneath the permafrost spontaneously destabilized — either through chemical or physical processes. The destabilized gas then is thought to have violently blown away the surface layer “like the popping of a cork in a champagne bottle.”

The Compost Bomb

Key to the second theory is that thawing permafrost contains vast stores of volatile methane at various depths. The methane is either trapped in pockets encased in ice and soil or locked in a water lattice structure forming what is called methane hydrate. Both forms are unstable, though they are often buried beneath tens to hundreds of meters of permafrost. Researchers have remained unsure how rapidly this methane would release and its rate of release is key to how fast the world will warm this century in response to human-caused greenhouse gas heat forcing.

Over 1,400 gigatons of carbon are sequestered in the permafrost. Much of this immense store is biological material buried over the 2 million year span of below-freezing conditions dominating much of the Arctic region of our planet. During this time, gradual glacial advance and retreat froze and refroze the earth in layers entombing a vast load of the stuff. Now, human warming is beginning to unlock it.

Permafrost spans much of the Arctic, under-girding Siberia, far Northern Europe, the northern tiers of Canada, and most of Alaska. It also rests beneath a flooded zone called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Initial reports and research from these regions indicate an ongoing release of millions of tons of methane and CO2 annually. Bubbling seabed stores from the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf have caused some to speculate that releases of 1 billion tons to 50 billion tons of methane could be possible during the coming years and decades.

Tundra map NASA

(Is a sleeping dragon awakening in the Arctic? Map of wide expanse of permafrost containing 1,400 gigatons of carbon. Image provided by NASA’s CARVE methane research experiment which is now under the aegis of ABOVE.

Peter Wadhams, in an article for Nature last year, attempted to bracket the potential impacts of such large releases. In the article, Wadhams estimated that a 50 gigaton emission from the Arctic methane store over the next two decades would increase global temperatures by about 0.6 C above the current rate of warming and force temperatures through the 2 C barrier by 2035 (ironically, Michael Mann comes to the same conclusion without implicit inclusion of a powerful methane release). The costs in human lives and economic damage from such a release would be immense and it would risk further outbursts from the large and vulnerable carbon store.

And though the potential for such very large releases remain highly controversial among scientists, the massive pile of thawing permafrost carbon is an ominously large and unstable store facing off against an initial human warming that is more than six times faster than at any time during the geological past.

In the shadow of this emerging and hard to gauge threat, a term emerged to encapsulate the vast warming potential stored in permafrost, should it release and hit the atmosphere. The term — compost bomb — alludes to the risk involved in pushing the two-million-year-old Northern Hemisphere permafrost stores into rapid thaw.

Mystery Hole — A Smoking Gun?

With the spontaneous emergence of a strange hole that Russian scientists are linking to destabilized gas pockets within the permafrost due to thaw, it became possible that, yet one more, explosive mechanism for release had presented itself. And now, today, a second and similar hole has been discovered:

According to the Moscow Times:

“Global warming, causing an alarming melt in the ice under the soil, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne cork,” the news report said, citing an expert at the Subarctic Scientific Research Center.

The first hole is estimated to be about 50 meters wide and 70 meters deep, with water from melting permafrost cascading down its sides into the icy deposit below.

The second hole is “exactly” like the first one, but “much smaller,” local lawmaker Mikhail Lapsui told the Interfax-Ural news agency. “Inside the crater itself, snow can be seen. (emphasis added)”

And so, in the course of just one week, we have two very strange holes that Russian scientists are linking to destabilizing gas pockets beneath the thawing tundra. Smoking barrel of the compost bomb? Or as a commenter here called Colorado Bob puts it:

We’re going to see the tundra breaking out in these things like zits on a teenager.

Let’s hope these are mere sink-holes from collapsing ice pockets in the permafrost. Let’s hope there’s another explanation for what appears to be ejecta piled around these holes. Let’s hope that these ‘zits’ showing up in the Yamal permafrost remain local to the area. And let’s hope we don’t start seeing similar explosive outbursts from tundra in other regions, or worse, along the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Lastly, let’s hope that any outbursts remain small in size and do not lift very large sections of land or submerged sea bed.

In any case, these initial reports are not promising and it appears we may both have a compost bomb smoking gun and a potential mechanism for rapid destabilization and explosive release of gas pockets deeply embedded in the frozen tundra all wrapped into one. Not very reassuring to say the least.

Links:

Mystery Behind Giant Hole Clearer as Second Hole Discovered

Now There Are Two Weird Holes in Siberia

LANCE-MODIS

The Siberian Times

NASA/CARVE

ABOVE

Impacts of Large Releases from Monstrous Arctic Methane Stores

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick

Hat tip to todaysguestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

 

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