Methane Seeps From the Arctic Seabed, Spooking Climate Scientists

By Eliza Strickland | August 19, 2009 10:10 am

methane plumesAt the bottom of the Arctic Sea lie vast deposits of methane gas trapped in frozen, icy forms called methane hydrates, and climate scientists would very much prefer that it remains trapped down there. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and some researchers worry that a warming ocean may melt the icy structures, allowing the gas to travel up through the water to the atmosphere, where it could further contribute to global warming. Now, scientists who have been scanning the seas for signs of trouble say they may have found some.

The researchers spotted 250 plumes of methane gas bubbling up through the sea north of Norway. The region where the team found the plumes is being warmed by the West Spitsbergen current, which has warmed by 1 °C over the past 30 years. “Hydrates are stable only within a particular range of temperatures,” says [study coauthor Tim] Minshull. “So if the ocean warms, some of the hydrates will break down and release their methane” [New Scientist]. However, the scientists couldn’t prove that the methane is being released as a direct result of the warming, and say it’s possible there have always been methane seeps like these.

The plumes, reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, were detected using a kind of sonar that is typically used by biologists searching for shoals of fish. All of the gas plumes spotted by the researchers dissolved into the water before reaching the ocean’s surface, meaning that bubbles of methane weren’t escaping into the atmosphere to contribute to global warming. Just because it fails to reach the surface doesn’t mean the methane is harmless, though, as some of it gets converted to carbon dioxide. The CO2 then dissolves in seawater and makes the oceans more acidic [New Scientist].

It isn’t yet clear how the plumes relate to global warming, or whether similar plumes are escaping from the seabed elsewhere in the Arctic. But lead researcher Graham Westbrook says the findings should be considered a serious warming sign. “If this process becomes widespread along Arctic continental margins, tens of megatonnes of methane a year – equivalent to 5-10% of the total amount released globally by natural sources, could be released into the ocean” [BBC News], he says.

Related Content:
80beats: 2 Trillion Tons of Polar Ice Lost in 5 Years, and Melting Is Accelerating
80beats: Arctic Tundra Surprises Scientists With Autumnal Methane Burps
80beats: Methane Bubbles in the Arctic Ocean Give Climate Scientists the Willies
DISCOVER: 10 Ways Methane Could Brake Global Warming–Or Break the Planet
DISCOVER: If Life Gives You Methane, Make Methane Energy

Image: National Oceanography Centre

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    What a joke! “scientists who have been scanning the seas for signs of trouble say they may have found some. the scientists couldn’t prove that the methane is being released as a direct result of the warming, and say it’s possible there have always been methane seeps like these.”
    So, because they searched long and hard enough, they found evidence that is inconclusive at best. They clearly state that they started the experiment with their conclusion already picked out. This is just one more sign that all this global warming science is just nonsense.

  • Gadfly

    Mr. Arbiter, you’re right. Even after all the disclaimers that they couldn’t prove anything, etc. THEN they come to the conclusion that it “should be taken as a serious warning sign”. Of what? Warning that some, many, most(?) scientists are guilty of letting preconceived notions influence their interpretation of results?

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    “guilty of letting preconceived notions influence their interpretation of results….”

    Do you even read the things you write?

    This is potentially worrying, but the scientists themselves acknowledge it’s inconclusive. Only denialists twist it into conclusive evidence to support their preconceived notion that there’s nothing to worry about.

  • Klem

    It’s clearly more evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon is due to natural causes, not humans. We just mistaken. Now we know that huge bubbles of methane have been released for millions of years. Thanks for this article.

  • chris

    How did the methane deposits get there?

    If there is a system that deposits the methane hydrates, is it still continuing?

    @ Klem

    That’s terribly narrow sighted. To deny man made climate change would be to deny our very nature and existence.

    Natural climate change has also been ocurring. My personal opionion is that it is our duty to ensure that the environment remains suitable for our habitability which means controlling both man made and natural climate change.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Brian: based upon your blog site you are just as guilty of twisting things to support your opinions. Anyone who is worried about beef affecting the atmosphere of our planet is in my opinion extremely misguided.

  • Will Hallan

    Arbiter & Gadfly,
    Have you considered that the “disclaimers” and statements of uncertainty you refer to may simply be the hallmarks of good scientific practice – exercising caution in evaluation of results, especially when they are as preliminary as these?

    You may find it unpalatable, but the simple fact of the matter is the majority of the established body of reliable and peer-reviewed scientific evidence on the matter now indicates that global warming is most certainly happening, and moreover has a significant anthropogenic component.

    Furthermore, it is also well-established that methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas – conservative estimates place its global warming potential (an assessment of the contribution of a gas, molecule-for-molecule, to the enhanced greenhouse effect and so global warming over the first 100 years of its atmospheric life) at 21 times that for carbon dioxide, though current research consistently places the ratio at 25 times or more (p.24 “New Scientist” No. 2714, 27/06/09). The very same edition proceeds to note in an article beginning on p.30 that “conservative figures place global reserves [of methane trapped in clathrates] at roughly 3 trillion tonnes of previously untapped carbon – more than is trapped in all the other known fossil fuel reserves put together”.

    Considering that, as well as enhancing the greenhouse effect in itself, each tonne of atmospheric methane will eventually form 2.75 tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide, these reserves would cause an unimaginable exacerbation of climate change if released into the atmosphere as the oceans and Arctic tundra (where the majority of these clathrates are found) warm – at this point it is pertinent to add that increases in mean temperature associated with global warming are at their most pronounced in the polar regions.

    In fact, the most concerning aspect of methane release from the clathrates – the potential for a positive feedback loop leading to inexorable and accelerating release of methane into the atmosphere – seems to have several times in the past caused not only drastic climate change, but threatened the existence of life itself – as in the “methane crisis” created by micrororganisms 3.7 billion years ago, the Permian mass extinction of 251 million years ago and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum of 55 million years ago (“Global Warming: Methane Could Be Far Worse Than Carbon Dioxide”, http://www.newmediaexplorer.org/sepp/2005/02/01/global_warming_methane_could_be_far_worse_than_carbon_dioxide.htm , p.30 “New Scientist” No. 2713 20/06/09).

    The release of methane from clathrates has also been shown to destabilise their structure, something which evidence from undersea shelf studies in Storegga, Norway, has indicated can cause major undersea landslides and, consequently, tsunamis.

    In both of your comments there was no evidence to support your assertions, no reference to any evidence at all in fact. I suggest that you examine the scientific foundation of your position before trying to criticise the work of others.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    Arbiter shows standard denialist form: moving on to a new attack, because the old one is indefensible. The point isn’t to make sense, it’s to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

    As to his new attack against me, let’s just postulate that I’m foolish and return to the subject: the scientists found something concerning but stated their uncertainties. Only someone foolish (welcome, brother!) would turn that around into concluding that the scientists are twisting evidence into nonsense.

  • Ryan

    It’s clearly more evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon is due to natural causes, not humans. We just mistaken. Now we know that huge bubbles of methane have been released for millions of years.

    The article says that this methane will not be released into the atmosphere but could convert into CO2 which is then absorbed by the ocean, increasing its acidity. Also, the scientists in the article quitle clearly state that they do not know how long these methane plumes have been around. You should learn to read more critically/carefully.

  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    Whether or not the climate change is man made, whether or not the plumes are exacerbating it is immaterial at this point: the planet IS warming, and if we’re not careful it may just well kill off our race.

    To deny that is to deny your children the peaceful life you currently enjoy.

  • Frank

    Will hit the methane worm on the head. I am amazed at the wanton ignorance (stupidity?) of people who are obviously educated, yet believe we are not significantly contributing to a
    warmer planet. We are winding up our time here as we know it. I pray we are better tenants next time.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    A sincere belief in the existence of dragons does not oblige the world to contain dragons. A sincere belief that man is changing the climate does not oblige natural climate cycles to abdicate their ponderous and peremptory role. I have not denyed that methane influences the atmosphere, nor have I denied that the planet may be warming. I merely instead assert that any such change is caused by natural phenomena over which mankind exercises no sway or ability to temper. I am a student of physics and well acquainted with the science of the issue. However, I have rationally come to a conclusion that differs from yours based upon the available evidence.

    I have no interest in spreading fear; on the contrary, I would urge the residents of Earth to rest easy, for I believe they have no impending climate doom to fear. I most certainly desire the proliferation of doubt on the subject of man-made global warming. When nations are poised to pass regulations of industry which will by all objective measures have substantial and negative economic effects in an attempt to alter the climate – a position I find to be erroneous or at best misguided – why would I not try to cast doubt and uncertainty upon such conclusions and endeavors?

  • Joshua

    Consider will you, that there could be darker motives as well Arbiter. After all, if repeated studies come to the same conclusion: that man-made climate change is the myth that logic and reason have shown it to be, that all of these scientists who have devoted their lives to the study of climate change might find themselves out of the grant money that keeps them in bottled water, gas filled cars, and houses cooled to a comfortable 72 degrees F in the summertime.

    Beyond preconceived notions, they have every reason to twist results on purpose. Not only do they WANT to find evidence of man-made climate change, they NEED to find evidence. Without it, and the fear that comes from it, they are going to be out of jobs, and out of livlihood.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that almost every other scientific field isn’t plagued by such problems, its only to say that I believe that THIS field is plagued the most. The mass media coverage and politicized nature of the beast have dictated that this be so.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    I agree with you completely Joshua. The other side declares research that gets funding from petroleum or energy companies to be invalid because of conflicts of interest. Yet, the rest of the scientists literally have theird livelihood dependent on finding problems to research.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    “I have no interest in spreading fear; on the contrary, I would urge the residents of Earth to rest easy, for I believe they have no impending climate doom to fear…..When nations are poised to pass regulations of industry which will by all objective measures have substantial and negative economic effects in an attempt to alter the climate – a position I find to be erroneous or at best misguided….”

    Once again, a failure to read their own words. Arbiter is trying to spread fear towards any action to combat greenhouse gas emissions.

    Other than that, we’re given a simple statement of his beliefs, which in my opinion is not very responsive to the scientific content of this post.

  • Christina Viering

    Again, more fears spreading for the damage we are doing to our atmosphere.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    I would hardly categorize efforts to present the other side of a complicated issue as trying to spread fear.

    As for your second point, my first post was focused on the substance of the article. You were the first person to start attacking individuals “Do you even read the things you write?”. I merely offered my defense to your unsolicited ad hominem attacks. I was called “wantonly ignorant” for having a differing opinion, so I explained that I came to rationally.

  • Frank

    Arbitter- for a student, your grammar is as flawed as your logic. This post is for an exchange of ideas, not for rambling diatribes.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    I don’t think we’re going to get any content from Arbiter, so I’ll just return to the subject of this post.

    According to David Archer’s The Long Thaw, not much methane was released from clathrates following the end of prior ice ages. He points out though that this time might be different, because the ice-age release areas only built up methane during tens of thousands of years between interglacials. By contrast, sometime this century we will take temperatures to levels not seen for hundreds of thousand of years, if not a few million years. That could break down clathrates in ocean floor areas that have had clathrate buildup for far longer than what we experienced during interglacial warming periods.

    The discovery outlined in this post could help understand clathrate buildup as well as dissolution, so it could help us understand if we’re entering extremely dangerous territory.

  • Dave Johnson

    Think about it – in 150 years humans have gorged themselves on 50% of the hydrocarbons that took 300 million years (300,000,000) to accumulate. All this potential energy was released into our biosphere in a relative “nanosecond” of time. And there are people – humans – who deny that this will not affect our Earth? They have their heads in the sand.

  • Dan G

    Will H. – Ironically, it was an “oxygen crisis” that first threatened life on earth, oxygen was a waste gas produced by the activity of life. But some methanegens survived, clinging to life in anoxic mud-holes, deep abysses, and animal guts…well most points on global warming are being covered, but the real question is how to harvest these methane hydrates and/or gas seeps for “green” energy.

  • Henny

    The scariest thing is how rapidly the current is warming. 1° in 30 years! Does anyone else think that the Big Blue Marble came with a reset button?

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Brian, you are right! I looked up what you said in my Jr. High library, and I realized that Glen Beck has been wrong for as long as I’ve listened to him!

  • Aussie John

    We have just survived the worst bushfire season on record here in the Victorian high country, in South Eastern Australia, after 13 years of below average rainfall, and record temperaturs of 47 degrees centigrade.
    There are not too many climate skeptics in these parts of the woods. Climate change in the once green lush temperate rain forests of Victoria is very obvious, whether it is man made or not. At the rate it is changing and the rate in which the local species are dying off, and the landscape changing to dryer woodlands, I am finding it hard to believe it is a natural transition.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Very funny. It is indeed possible to form opinions contrary to yours without watching Glen Beck. I don’t watch Fox News, or listen to Rush Limbaugh Hannity Levin etc. I am not uneducated, ignorant, insane, or in Jr. High. My opinion differs from yours based on the available evidence. Grow up, you arrogant ass.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Once the stable, frozen methane under the seabed warms, it becomes unstable- even explosive. As the spitsbergen current of cold water warms and breaks down, there could be an underwater eruption of biblical proportions. The 1 degree change in 30 years is frightening. 2 degrees more will be a showstopper. I hope that I graduate in time to save us.

  • Arbitrary Arbiter

    Congratulations, you have the rhetorical style of a four year old.

  • http://www.thelmaharcum.com Thelma

    Very interesting conversations!
    Hi! I’m new here and my concern is not about what we have no control of in the issue of global warming, but what can we do. It appear to me that earth have a natural course of being before humans populated it, and I wonder what it look like then.
    All I know is that we had better start making changes now, because we are running out of resources and getting less immune to viruses that develop.

    If there is a way to capture this methene gas for energy use, how great would that be!
    Somehow, I believe we need to continue making plans to cut all gas-consumming cars,trucks and other vehicles-boats as soon as possible. Using energy efficient lights bulbs have made a great dent in the reduction in the electrical energy we use. The LED bulbs are very popular for all kinds of lighting-Christmas trees, home and work. We are truely in a battle to save the earth and all of its resources. It is up to all of us to educate others and do something for the change. If we can recycle water, eat one less cooked meal, cut down on meats, walk more or take public transportation, we would reduce global warming, and promote better health.
    Somehow, I believe that the public is becoming more educated from reading articles such as the one written on this subject. I repect the idea that somebody is studying the effects of the methane gas under the sea because,
    it can impact earth in. There seem to be an order of underworld life that
    we might not know everything about.
    Focusing on the problem now will surely improve living on earth, tomorrow.

  • Gwenny

    Wow, shades of Mother of Storms. I’m guessing climate scientists don’t read fiction. LOL Or else they do but not until it’s old.

  • Walt

    Scientists don’t use science to prove their point. It’s politics, what will bring them grants.
    True science is absent from most but those who want to know the truth, whatever it is.

    Yes, they do use instruments and process for their work, but the thoughts of how to interpret are very childish and as if they had no training at all. Take Global warming, seems all the planets are going through it, so why not Earth. Why is that? Oh yeah, greenhouse gases on Earth. Interesting, veeeery interesting. Are they blind or what?

    Really, there are people that want things a certain way for a certain reason. They will use money, prestige, power or anything that will advance their cause. Total power and their autonomy. Submitting all to their simplistic, weak, idle ideas that are just preposterous and without merit. This is inconvenient truth.

  • Trulucourfido
  • Candtce

    Do any of you even know what you are talking about? It does not take a rocket scientist to know that there are three building blocks of nature and the world has evolved from these three into what the world is today. Go back to the basics of education and learn how atoms, (electrons, neutrons and protons) react to different chemical bonding and whatever; I am new to this so anyway go back to the basics. It does not matter whether a scientist explains it or a simple person such as me. Even I know that if we make more gases than the Earth normally produces on its own then the chemical makeup of the atmosphere will be changed which could cause the greenhouse effect to change. Cutting down trees, moving the location of fish to another location, which eat smaller fish (Victoria Lake), all things have a rippling effect on nature. Greenhouse effect relies on the normal things in nature and when we change the norm then we are affecting the greenhouse gases. Read how they actually work and then think about if you cut down all the trees in one area how that will affect the output of CO2 and other gases back into the atmosphere or ground, water, etc. It does make a difference and man has caused the problem trying to make new inventions and so forth. Even experimenting causes some of these effects to change but if we did not have scientist to explain these things then we would not understand nor have the technology we do today such as being able to voice our opinions around the globe. All of you are entitled to your opinions and this should be a discussion not a name-calling match. I am just learning some of this, I knew a little about it before when I was in high school and I cannot explain it the way a scholarly person does but it is easy to understand, if you do the research and come to your own conclusions and ideas and it is ok to disagree. As for myself, I want my grandchildren to live long and have a good life, so I am going to try to do my part because I am not selfish I can do without things to make sure they have a future. I am not that smart to explain it but at least I am smart enough to know what I do makes a difference in a small way so count the many things we all do all over the world and figure it out. Do not rely on what you read just look at the basics and figure it out for yourself.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »