Methane and Methane Hydrates are perhaps the biggest Global Warming wildcards which have the highest potential to create a game over doomsday scenario for humanity. Methane emissions are not being seriously measured which is of a concern since a huge natural gas boom has recently taken place in the USA over the last five years. Even more troublesome is that some very large and potent sequestered carbon sinks on the planet are being warmed by record breaking temperatures in Alaska and Russia encouraging the potential release of a cataclysmic amount of Methane.
Many moons ago there was a time when volcanos put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it raised ocean temperatures enough to release methane trapped in the seafloor, the result was a thing some scientists call the end-Triassic mass extinction, where at least half of the species living at the time vanished forever from the fossil record.
According to the US EPA:
Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities. In 2011, CH4 accounted for about 9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere help remove CH4 from the atmosphere. Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2.
Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.
Anthropogenic Sources: Rice Paddies, Biomass Burning, Landfills, Coal Mining, Gas Production and Ruminant Animals (cows, sheep and goats etc.).
The Climate Change Villain With Many Names Hiding Underwater and the Permafrost
Methane Hydrate aka Methane Ice Gas, Methane Clathrate, Hydromethane, Methane Ice, Fire Ice, Natural Gas Hydrate and/or Gas Hydrate. Hydrates are an ice-like combination of natural gas and water that can form under permafrost and is also found in lakes and ocean sediments near continents.
The continued warming of the North Slope of Alaska and Northern Russia are resulting in the melting of gas hydrates below the permafrost. For every cubic meter of Methane Hydrate that melts approximately 160 cubic meters of methane could be released into the atmosphere.
According to the Assessment of Gas Hydrate Resources on the North Slope, Alaska, 2008: United States Geological Survey, Fact Sheet 2008-3073, October, 2008. Estimated that the total undiscovered natural gas resource in the form of gas hydrate ranges between 25.2 and 157.8 trillion cubic feet, but very few wells have been drilled to verify that amount.
The Alaskan heatwave of 2013 gave the town of Talkeetna the last stop for climbers heading to Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain a record high temperature of 96F (98F unofficial).
Warming oceans could also in theory release methane by melting Methane Hydrate located in the Shallow Arctic Shelf and the Upper Edge of Stability according to the USGS. But they also say that “that most of the world’s gas hydrate deposits should remain stable for the next few thousand years” which is why “a Methane Catastrophe Is Unlikely”.
What the Conservative Consensus Based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC (AR5) says about Methane Hydrates:
“Methane hydrates are another form of frozen carbon, occurring in deep permafrost soils, ocean shelves, shelf slopes and deeper ocean bottom sediments. They consist of methane and water molecule clusters, which are only stable in a specific window of low temperatures and high pressures. On land and in the ocean, most of these hydrates originate from marine or terrestrial biogenic carbon, decomposed in the absence of oxygen and trapped in an aquatic environment under suitable temperature-pressure conditions.
Any warming of permafrost soils, ocean waters and sediments and/or changes in pressure could destabilise those hydrates, releasing their methane to the ocean. During larger, more sporadic releases, a fraction of that methane might also be outgassed to the atmosphere. There is a large pool of these hydrates: in the Arctic alone, the amount of methane stored as hydrates could be more than 10 times greater than the methane presently in the global atmosphere.
Like permafrost thawing, liberating hydrates on land is a slow process, taking decades to centuries. The deeper ocean regions and bottom sediments will take still longer—between centuries and millennia to warm enough to destabilise the hydrates within them. Furthermore, methane released in deeper waters has to reach the surface and atmosphere before it can become climatically active, but most is expected to be consumed by microorganisms before it gets there. Only the methane from hydrates in shallow shelves, such as in the Arctic Ocean north of Eastern Siberia, may actually reach the atmosphere to have a climate impact.
Several recent studies have documented locally significant methane emissions over the Arctic Siberian shelf and from Siberian lakes. How much of this methane originates from decomposing organic carbon or from destabilizing hydrates is not known. There is also no evidence available to determine whether these sources have been stimulated by recent regional warming, or whether they have always existed—it may be possible that these methane seepages have been present since the last deglaciation. In any event, these sources make a very small contribution to the global methane budget—less than 5%. This is also confirmed by atmospheric methane concentration observations, which do not show any substantial increases over the Arctic.
However modelling studies and expert judgment indicate that methane and carbon dioxide emissions will increase under Arctic warming, and that they will provide a positive climate feedback. Over centuries, this feedback will be moderate: of a magnitude similar to other climate-terrestrial ecosystem feedbacks. Over millennia and longer, however, carbon dioxide and methane releases from permafrost and shelves/shelf slopes are much more important, because of the large carbon and methane hydrate pools involved.”
BBC Video about Methane Releases from Russian Permafrost
Video Titled: Dr. Ronald Prinn Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT shares his colleagues recent discovery of an unexplained increase in methane concentrations and the Greenhouse Gamble. Arctic Warming: Risks for Methane Emissions really starts at video time 27:35.
EV of the Year Judge, independent green journalist, photographer, author and sustainability activist that has published over 1000 articles. Mr Burridge’s travels have taken him to over 30 countries and 300+ major cities. He is originally from the USA, but has been residing in Australia for the last seven years. Connect to Ken Burridge on: Twitter, facebook, Google+, Linked in or website