Globe-Warming Methane Is Gushing From a Russian Ice Shelf

By Andrew Moseman | March 4, 2010 6:29 pm

iceshelfBehind the ongoing back-and-forth fights over climate change that usually focus on carbon, there has lingered the threat of the powerful greenhouse gas methane being released into the atmosphere and causing even worse trouble. In August we reported on a study that noted methane bubbling up from the seafloor near islands north of Norway, giving scientists a scare. This week in Science, another team reports seeing the same thing during thousands of observations of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf on Russia’s north coast, which is even more worrisome because it’s a huge methane deposit.

The shelf, which covers about 800,000 square miles, was exposed during the last ice age. When the region was above sea level, tundra vegetation pulled carbon dioxide from the air as plants grew. That organic material, much of which didn’t decompose in the frigid Arctic, accumulated in the soil and is the source of modern methane [Science News]. Now underwater, it’s covered by a layer of permafrost. But that permafrost seems to be becoming unstable, thanks to the fact that the water on top of it is warmer than the air it was exposed to back when it was on dry land.

The study said about 8 million tonnes of methane a year, equivalent to the annual total previously estimated from all of the world’s oceans, were seeping from vast stores long trapped under permafrost [Reuters]. Study leader Natalia Shakhova says methane levels in the Arctic haven’t been this high in 400,000 years. While we’re not about to teeter off a cliff—that 8 million tons is a small portion of the global emissions of 440 million tons—we should be concerned, the scientists say. Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, absorbing at least 25 times more heat, NOAA says.

It is possible that climate change could be contributing to the release, with warmer seas causing more methane to come out, creating a feedback loop. But methane has long been leaking, and there’s no record of the previous levels with which to verify how much methane emissions are increasing, or whether people are playing a part. While Shakhova says the warmer runoff into the Arctic ocean is probably contributing, the team can’t say that for sure.

What they can say for sure is that the methane levels there are extremely high. Most undersea methane oxidizes into CO2 as it enters the atmosphere, but Shakhova says the East Siberian Ice Shelf methane is too close to the surface for that to happen. As a result, she said, atmospheric levels of methane over the Arctic are 1.85 parts per million, almost three times as high as the global average of 0.6 or 0.7 parts per million. Concentrations over the shelf are 2 parts per million or higher [The New York Times].

Related Content:
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DISCOVER: 10 Ways Methane Could Brake Global Warming–Or Break the Planet
DISCOVER: If Life Gives You Methane, Make Methane Energy

Image: University of Alaska Fairbanks

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • al gore

    This is such bs. First off carbon dioxide is not a poison it is not a green house gas,we breath it out and plants take it in. 400,ooo years ago in an ice age their were plants growing and they did not decompose. This story is a total contradiction. Can we stop for a minute and think like rational people. The planet was here before we were and it will be here long after we do our stupid selves in. wake up people.

  • http://hubpages.com/profile/Dorsi Dorsi

    Great information about the seriousness of methane gas. I have been concerned that this was where we were headed and it looks like the writing is on the wall now. Runaway climate change. Abrupt climate change. Scary scenarios. I am going to do some linking to your blog here, it’s full of great information. To read about some ideas the administration is looking into concerning this you can read my article at the SF Examiner here:
    http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-5236-SF-Climate-Change-Examiner~y2009m4d9-Emergency-measures-for-runaway-climate-change
    and also read about the climates tipping point here:
    http://hubpages.com/hub/The-Tipping-Point–Our-Climates-Point-of-No-Return

    This is very very bad news, very sad and a harbinger of things to come. Thanks for setting the record straight. Debating climate change is old news and I wish people would get a clue.

  • Max E

    I’d edit almost that entire post Al, almost none of it was true except for your conclusion. Yes, the planet will always exist in some form. Whether it can exist in a form that can sustain life isn’t the question people should be asking. The question should be, will it exist in a form that can sustain human life? The periods in history that a lot of people use to show that greenhouse gases have been higher in the past are periods in time that never supported human beings. We might not be creating an atmosphere that is unseen, but we’re increasing the rate at which we get ourselves to an atmosphere that may severely hinder our way of life.

    As for this story, the report is very interesting and obviously very concerning. All the sanctions, taxes and effort that we put into limiting anthropogenic emissions may well be limited by natural emissions of greenhouse gases such as in this example. That’s not to say it’s okay, it just highlights how alarming one of many possible outcomes may be.

    It’s even more alarming that the very same methane many researchers are concerned about in the Arctic permafrost is what many in industry and exploration are touting as the next fossil fuel. Not only is it being released on its own accord, but people actually want to uncover it and harness it as a fuel. We can be a very twisted and ignorant people sometimes.

  • Peter

    Al, while it is true carbon dioxide is not a poisonous gas to humans at least in atmospheric quantities, it is most definitely a greenhouse gas. The pretty potent outcome of having too much greenhouse gases can be seen on venus. As other scientists have noted, global warming only became really apparent when we started cleaning up the particulate pollution problem that was resulting in global dimming. It is possible for the plants to not decompose in the arctic and remain pretty much as they are for many years due to low temperatures, however other processes will still cause it to break down, producing that large deposit of methane.

    As for using the methane, it is probably preferable burning it to produce CO2 and H2O, which will cause eventual long term problems, but minimize the short term impact of sharp global warming increases. Long term problem = less oxygen and potential global warming and dimming at the same time

  • Andi Prama

    Please watch my video

    It’s about climate change (extreme weather conditions), earth catastrophe and our planet as we lives in. Recent Earth catastrophes – Continental Drift: One huge continent became 2 continents, then 5 (or 6) and then?

    Thank you.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7I_eFoIk64

  • http://www.suntelia.com Tim Miltz

    Looks like it’s worth being wrong on this eh ?

    I’ve been studying the frozen methane locked up at the sea floor for a bit now.

    It’s already out of control in Alaska.

    We have serious problems on our hands.

    This could literally take 2050 predictions for climate and make then 2016.

    One thing for sure – as I see it- all that melted ice has to go somewhere – WATER CYCLE

    expect greater floods – heavier rains –

    stronger storms – and of course- be sure to SHORT the insurance sector until money doesn’t mean as much as keeping dry and cool.

    GOOD LUCK FOLKS

    Tim Miltz

  • http://www.suntelia.com Tim Miltz

    The way I see things ?

    ALL that melted ice ?

    increases tectonic plate pressure on the pacific plate

    I expect stronger earthquakes- more volcanic activity.

    ALL worth 75 years of burning oil

    GO EXXON – then again – top 2 corporations are Exxon and Petro China

    they wouldn’t EVER buy a government or media resource…

    Would they ?

    lol

    enjoy complacency while it lasts.

    Tim

  • George

    I heard about or read about “Our Atmosphere” is five miles shallower than it was 100 years ago. That is all I ever heard about it but has anyone ever thought that less ATMOSPHERE is part of global warming?
    Burning oxygen out of the atmosphere to run industry and automobles is in the long run “killing us.”

  • kelly

    Globe-Warning Methane Is Gushing From a Russian Ice Shelf

    http://www.examiner.com/x-4648-Atlanta-Weather-Examiner~y2009m9d6-Arctic-passage-open-without-ice-breakers-first-time-in-history

    Sen. Rockefeller Introduces Legislation to Suspend EPA Regulation of Stationary Source GHG for 2 Years

    Uniquely, American politicians discover the absence of global warming and presence of weapons-of-mass-destruction.

  • Steven Purcell

    The shelf, which covers about 800,00 square miles…

    Was that supposed to be 80,000 square miles or 800,000 square miles? Probably the former but the comma position is a bit odd.

  • Mike

    “The East Siberian Arctic Shelf — a 2.1-million-square-kilometer patch of Arctic seafloor”

    so that will be around 800,000 sq miles.

  • Imipak

    A couple more recent stories on Arctic emissions of methane from melting clathrates, from the BBC News website:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8437703.stm

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8205864.stm

    Note those two studies are at opposite ends of the northern coastline of Eurasia, i.e., Norway and the eastern Siberian Arctic shelf.

  • kelly

    Maybe an article from Alaskans, with pictures, can clarify global warming:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Barrow-Alaska-Ground-Zero-for-Climate-Change.html

    Summer sea ice in the region shrank by nearly 40 percent between 1978 and 2007. Winter temperatures have been several degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were a few decades ago. Trees have spread into the tundra. In 2008, a wildfire broke out in an area north of the Brooks Range, where the local dialect had no word for forest fire.

    Barrow, Alaska: Ground Zero for Climate Change
    “Whatever is going to happen to the rest of the world,” says Dan Endres of NOAA, “happens first and to the greatest extent in the Arctic.”

  • http://DezignsUnlimited.com wade cooper

    Poor Al Gore is getting a bad rep from the above imposter. I am concerned about the frozen methane on the bottom of our worlds oceans. I know it exists in deep waters as well as shallow everywhere and has been blamed for sinking ships when the bubbles are released underneath them by underwater land slides or tremors. Oh, and factually, Carbon Dioxide is toxic in quantities over about 10 percent, perhaps higher. Not that it would reach that in open air,…just saying, carbon monoxide is worse. But to the point, there is hope if we can find a way to trap, sequester or even burn the methane rather than have it float up into the air. It is lighter than air and so is not recoverable once it escapes into the air. Co2 is heavy and is used by plants and does not go up into the atmosphere very much but stays low. If we capture it in bags underwater we can compress it and do something with it, even burn it and then convert the co2 back into carbon and oxygen with plants. Plants are our ticket out of this mess, and yet we are cutting them down by the acre every second. A huge part of the problem with global warming is our energy and transportation needs. Electric cars are capable now of fulfilling 75 to 85 percent of our needs and there are multiple sources of energy to choose from. Solar is our best long term bet. It is becoming a large industry and the price per watt is coming down under two dollars, making it affordable. Also roads can be paved with carbon absorbing materials that are white instead of heat absorbing black asphalt. Soda lime absorbs co2 and is used in rebreathers.
    Concrete absorbs co2 as well as a lot of other compounds that could be put into paved surfaces and roads where lies the source of much of our co2 in the first place. Curiously the first rebreather was made in 1620 by Cornelius Drebbel for his oar powered submarine, by heating potasium nitrate or Salt Petre to give of oxygen it also served to absorb Co2. The Scuba tank was not invented until more than 320 years after the rebreather.
    . Back to methane, it is a real problem, like a fuse to a bomb that is already lit. Cattle produce a lot of methane by belching as well as by manure. If they could be fed in large tents with special ventelation, they could stay warmer in the winter, shaded in the summer. Something like a long quansit hut or plastic green house. We have to come up with some solutions, we have to do more than just complain or argue.

  • kelly

    “Poor Al Gore is getting a bad rep from the above imposter.”

    Not sure which of ‘the above’ 13 you reference.

    Much you wrote made sense, but cattlemen enjoy the “fed in large tents” punchline.

  • Roger

    Response to post 15 from Kelly:
    Not sure which one? How about he’s referring to post #1 signed by “Al Gore” who is so obviously NOT the real Al Gore, and by “real Al Gore” I mean the ex Vice President. Naturally I have no way of knowing if post #1 is from somebody else who might, in fact, be named Al Gore, but I think that is very unlikely. So post #1 is from the “above imposter”.

  • Bill Karnopp

    Question What year did an iceberg float down from the arcitc to between Greenland and Engliand? I will subscrib for a year.
    Bill Karnopp

  • m

    oh puleeease!!!

    first off…methane has been pumping into the air for millions of years! ever been to say…a swamp? d’uh!

    CO2 is not a “greenhouse gas”.

    and as the article says…the whole are was once warmer….berfore there were people.

    oi vey! go back and take a grade 10 physics class.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    m….on the off chance you’re interested in correcting your misunderstandings….CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is irrefutable. It is a property of the molecule. This has been known for over a 100 years. It has been demonstrated experimentally in the 19th century, and with lasers and thermographs in the 20th and 21st century. You may as well argue gravity doesn’t exist, or that the atomic weight of carbon is wrong. When you go back for your Grade 10 physics class, sign up for a chem class too.

    and as the article says…the whole are was once warmer….berfore there were people.

    No-one disputes the world was once warmer. However, our agriculture and society are based on a stable temperature for the past 8,000 years or so, and now temperature is changing fast, which will affect agriculture.

    There are several reasons why climate would change (solar output, orbital inclinations) so just because it happened one way in the past (e.g. orbital inclination) does not mean that is the reason it is happening now. That’s like saying before humans were around forest fires were started by lightening…therefore, all forest fires today are caused by lightening.

    None of the known factors account for this current warming…only when you plug CO2 into the math do the models show the same warming trend as we’re experiencing now. Maybe someone will eventually find another factor why the globe is warming, but after 30-odd years of searching, no-one has found another factor.

    Back on topic, realclimate has an article on the methane here:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/03/arctic-methane-on-the-move/

    Their analogy is you’re driving the car at 60 mph and find the brake doesn’t work (that’s CO2). Then you find the accelerator is jammed (that’s methane) so now you’re going to hit the truck in front of you at 90 instead of 60.

    Their conclusion is methane is just a small feedback.

    For methane to be a game-changer in the future of Earth’s climate, it would have to degas to the atmosphere catastrophically, on a time scale that is faster than the decadal lifetime of methane in the air. So far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that happen.

  • terra incognita

    i propose an experiment for the faux al gore.

    al, grab the nearest trash bag, zip lock bag, lunch bag, etc, and completely cover your mouth & nose.

    now inhale & exhale deeply for five minutes, when you wake up on the floor with a headache, sign back in & tell us C02 isn’t toxic.

    honestly, shut off the faux/fox news, shave your knuckles, go (re?)take some science classes & grow some gray matter.

  • m

    co2 is not a greenhouse gas.

    it’s amazing how seemingly intelligent people can overlook basic physics.

    it just breaks my heart.

    enviro nazi’s should read books and not burn them

  • http://www.globalclimatesolutions.net/ E

    Factual discrepancy in statement

    http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_tar/?src=/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/221.htm#tab61

    reports all-atmospheric methane as 1745 ppb in 1998, not anything like 600-700. The latter (700ppb) is the pre-industrial level.

    Note that this does not change the point if levels over the shelf are 2ppm above any of the above numbers.

    also,
    UPDATE for skeptics:

    your ranks have lost a prominent member:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE67M3G920100823

    “The climate is changing. This year we have come to understand this when we faced events that resulted in fires,” Putin told climate scientists working at the station, opened in 1998 to study the melting Siberian permafrost.

    […and open to though not yet convinced about anthropogenicity]

    Putin, dressed in a warm jacket, told the scientists on the barren tundra that he was still waiting for an answer whether global climate change was the result of human activity or “the Earth living its own life and breathing.”

  • William P

    Max E said:

    “We are heading for a planet that severely hinders our way of life…”

    Yeah – like it will hinder our eating. That’s a way of life I’ll really miss.

    All this delicate scientific phrasing and parsing of plain truth. Its so impressive, but so out of place at this emergency time.

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