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The US, The Arctic, and the Methane Threat to Life on Earth

December 2, 2013
The Associated Press & Al Jazeera America & Gary Houser / The Arctic News

Methane is 21 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The US is spewing 50 percent more methane than the previously estimated, with much of it coming from three states: Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Meanwhile, the warming Arctic permafrost contains up to 1,850 billion metric tons of methane. Large-scale thawing and release of frozen polar methane gas has wiped out great swaths of life before and is quite capable of doing so again.


US Methane Emissions
50% Worse than Believed

The Associated Press & Al Jazeera America

(November 26, 2013) -- The United States is spewing 50 percent more methane -- a potent heat-trapping gas -- than the federal government estimates, a new comprehensive scientific study says. Much of it is coming from just three states: Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

That means methane may be a bigger global warming issue than thought, scientists say. Methane is 21 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, the most abundant global warming gas, although it doesn't stay in the air as long.

Much of that extra methane, also called natural gas, seems to be coming from livestock, including manure, belches, and flatulence, as well as leaks from refining and drilling for oil and gas, the study says. It was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The study estimates that in 2008, the US poured 49 million tons of methane into the air. That means US methane emissions trapped about as much heat as all the carbon dioxide pollution coming from cars, trucks, and planes in the country in six months.

That's more than the 32 million tons estimated by the US Environmental Protection Administration or the nearly 29 million tons reckoned by the European Commission.

"Something is very much off in the inventories," said study co-author Anna Michalak, an Earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. "The total US impact on the world's energy budget is different than we thought, and it's worse."

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said her agency hasn't had time to go through the study yet, but hopes it will help "refine our estimates going forward."

While the world has a good handle on how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the air, scientists have been more baffled by methane emissions. They have had to use computer models to estimate how much methane is going into that air.

This study, however, was based on nearly 13,000 measurements from airplane flights and tall towers, the most used in any such research.

The information was collected in 2008. Scientists have yet to analyze their data from 2012, and that will capture more of any impact of the natural gas boom from hydraulic fracturing, Michalik said. Studies recently have shown conflicting results about how much methane escapes during fracking and other forms of fossil fuel drilling.

Outside experts praised the study. Robert Howarth at Cornell University called "it very compelling and quite important. This is the most comprehensive study yet."

Michalak said because of the way they measured methane -- just looking for it in the air as opposed to tracking it from a source -- it is hard to say what is putting more methane into the air. But she said by looking at concentrations -- especially within Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas -- the scientists have a good idea: Cows, oil and gas.

Nearly one-quarter of the US methane emissions came from those three states. Texas is by far and away the No. 1 state for refineries that turn oil into gasoline. Texas and Oklahoma have been big oil and gas drilling states and Kansas is a big cow state.

Cows seem to be spewing twice the methane that scientists previously thought, Michalak said.

While burps and flatulence are part of the methane emission from cattle, University of California Santa Barbara professor Ira Leifer said a bigger factor is manure.

"If you shovel it into an artificial lagoon you are creating the perfect production for methane, but it cuts down on the smell and your neighbors complain less," he said.

The Arctic Could Release an Historic Cloud of Deadly Methane
The Severity of the Threat and the Tragic Moral Failure to Address It

Gary Houser / The Arctic News

(Disclaimer for those linking to the original story online: The threat of climate catastrophe is not a "pretty" concept. As impacts begin to intensify, there will be much real suffering and some photos included in this commentary are representative of this reality and the danger forcing itself upon us. They are intended for grown-ups, whose most important responsibility is to protect the future of their children. Some of these images are not intended for children.)

"Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon -- an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 billion metric tons of it.... In comparison, about 350 billion metric tons of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850."
-- from NASA news release "Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic? [1]

"Climate destabilization, like nuclear war, has the potential to destroy all human life on Earth and in effect murder the future'....Willfully caused extinction is a crime that as yet has no name."
-- Ecological Ethicist David Orr [2]

"It's not clear that civilization could survive that extreme of a climate change."
-- World renowned climate scientist James Hansen, referring to the radical increase in global warming that would result from a major release of super greenhouse gas methane [3]

(August 30, 2013) -- All who might dismiss this title as "exaggeration" and the opening photo as "alarmism" owe it to their children and grandchildren and the future of humanity to read on.

Large-scale thawing and release of previously frozen methane gas has wiped out great swaths of life before and is quite capable of doing so again. Warming from carbon emissions is now unleashing Arctic deposits of this super greenhouse gas -- an awesome and truly frightening force -- and threatens to initiate a chain reaction that could well be unstoppable once started.

This commentary does not dwell on "doomsday" rhetoric. But humanity is teetering much closer to oblivion than what has been "getting through" in the shallow coverage offered by mass media, and there is a moral imperative to issue a warning. Mass extinction -- especially self-imposed -- is not a "pretty" concept and the use of a few graphic images is necessary to both convey a reality that may be forcing itself upon us and to penetrate the shield of denial.

The voices of scientists pressing on this front deserve to be amplified. Their observations and concerns are presented to the reader, who is invited to evaluate whether any "alarm" is justified. Humanity is standing on the very edge of a cliff, and if we fall off it will be a one-way ticket to Hell.

Despite the looming shadow cast by this danger, it has yet to make its way into public consciousness. Even the world-wide environmental movement has continued to focus on human-generated emission of global warming gases and has not grasped the dire implications of the accelerated catastrophe which could ensue if nature's own stockpile becomes activated -- an immense storehouse containing far more carbon than humans have generated since the onset of the industrial age.

Though the sweeping scale of this existential threat combined with its potential irreversibility -- once triggered -- may be leading to psychological denial, the reality of the danger compels humanity to take all precaution and spare no expense in both understanding and reducing it. Yet the response so far points to an unspeakably tragic moral collapse.

Every single segment of our society that should be either sounding the alarm or taking definitive action to prevent this global catastrophe is presently looking the other way. This commentary examines such failure in Part Two, but first explores the nature and magnitude of the danger itself.

Geological Record Points to the
Destructive Power of Methane

Although carbon dioxide persists much longer in the atmosphere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that methane is a full 72 times more powerful during its first 20 years. [4]

It is the prevailing view of the scientific community that earlier major releases of this gas resulted in the most catastrophic wipe-outs of life in planetary history. Two critically important British documentaries explore the scientific inquiry linking methane to both the Permian [5] and PETM [6] mass extinction events.

Etched into ancient layers of rock is the record of the Permian extinction event -- the most complete decimation of life known to science. Searches for fossilized clues of living organisms reveal a stunningly empty slate. [7] It is believed that a staggering 90% of the life forms on earth simply disappeared.

Scientific opinion -- also based on the geologic record -- is that a tremendous series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia released enough carbon dioxide to drive earth's temperature up five degrees C (centigrade).

This radical increase then warmed the world's oceans enough to thaw previously frozen methane. Evidence points to the heat from this super global warming gas driving temperatures up another five degrees C and causing the horrific wipe-out.

How Severe is the Current Threat?
Numerous, quite authoritative and politically neutral sources (such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA) are now in agreement that if global carbon emissions are not dramatically reduced very quickly, the planet will be seeing temperature increases of five degrees C or more by the latter part of this century. [8]

Such a human-generated increase could very well take the place of the volcanic eruptions in Siberia, and could set the stage for a potential mass release of ancient methane.

How the Arctic Is Playing a Key Role
The vastness of the carbon deposit which could be released from the Arctic is mind-boggling, dwarfing the total thus far generated by humans. Nowhere on earth are temperatures rising as quickly.

NASA describes the role of the Arctic in driving climate disruption:
"The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate. Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system." [9]

Last year, Arctic ice coverage was reduced to its lowest level in recorded history. Even worse, this massive meltdown appears to be developing an unstoppable momentum through what scientists are calling a "death spiral" -- where open water caused by accelerated melting is now absorbing additional solar heat and setting into motion even more melting. [10]

Ira Leifer -- methane specialist at the Univ. of California and co-author of a paper describing evidence that Arctic methane is venting into the atmosphere [11] -- describes the unique factor represented by the shallow seas in that region:

"The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is vast and shallow.... Methane in a shallow sea can make its way to the atmosphere without dissolving significantly and being eaten by microbes.... These vast methane hydrate deposits are a risk and a great concern because as the oceans warm, they will release their methane and it will make its way to the atmosphere." [12]

Super Greenhouse Gas Beginning to
Thaw and Vent to Atmosphere

Researchers in the field are now bringing back eyewitness reports of plumes of methane bubbles rising to the surface on a scale they have never seen before.

Igor Semiletov -- who has pursued this issue for 15 years -- reported astonishment regarding the observations made during a joint US-Soviet expedition to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf in 2011:
"We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale -- I think on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere -- the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal." [13]

NASA has conducted measurements of methane over the Arctic Sea via airplane. According to researcher Eric Kort:

"When we flew over areas were the sea ice had melted, or where there were cracks in the ice, we saw the methane level increase.... Our observations really point to the ocean surface as the source, which was not what we had expected.... The association with sea ice makes this methane source likely to be sensitive to changing Arctic ice cover and dynamics, providing an unrecognized feedback process in the global atmosphere-climate system." [14]

Methane Emissions from Seabeds
Paralleled by Land-Based
Permafrost Releasing Carbon

Observations of increased methane emitting from the shallow Arctic seabeds are being mirrored by similar observations on land. The rate at which previously frozen carbon is releasing from land permafrost is now accelerating.

"Thawing permafrost is emitting more climate-heating carbon faster than previously realized. Scientists have now learned that when the ancient carbon locked in the ice thaws and is exposed to sunlight, it turns into carbon dioxide 40 percent faster. 'This really changes the trajectory of the debate over when and how much carbon will be released as permafrost thaws due to ever warmer temperatures in the Arctic." [15]

From the same NASA news release mentioned above:
"What they're finding, Miller said, is both amazing and potentially troubling. "Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we've measured have been large, and we're seeing very different patterns from what models suggest. We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze." [16]

A major report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) summarizes this parallel situation:
"According to the report, Arctic and alpine air temperatures are expected to increase at roughly twice the global rate, and climate projections indicate substantial loss of permafrost by 2100.

"A global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius means a 6 degrees Celsius increase in the Arctic, resulting in an irreversible loss of anywhere between 30 to 85 percent of near-surface permafrost."

Ground-breaking Study Quantifies
Global Damage That Could Result
From Major Methane Release

Authoritative science journal Nature recently published an article describing the staggering economic impact that would be caused by a major release of methane.

Top British ice scientist Peter Wadhams collaborated with economic modelers to apply to Arctic methane the same modeling used in the highly respected Stern Report to quantify the damage to the world economy which would result from human-generated greenhouse gases.

They issue a stunning warning that the damage could be comparable to the total value of the entire global economy last year:
"We calculate that the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge, because the region is pivotal to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate. The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action -- a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion)." [18]

How Close Are We to a Major Release?
It is not possible to predict precisely when such a line could be crossed. But Arctic scientists are indeed reporting that the conditions necessary for such a "breakout" are now in fact lining up. These include a vast storehouse of frozen methane, shallow seas that allow the gas to reach the surface, a massive loss of ice that only seems destined to accelerate, and rapid warming of temperature.

When such conditions are forming and carry consequences that could bring down our civilization, it is clear that humanity is already entering into an emergency state. In his article "Methane Hydrates: A Volatile Time Bomb in the Arctic", Australian climate scientist Carlos Duarte states the following:
"Even moderate (a few degrees C) warming of the overlying waters may change the state of methane from hydrates to methane gas, which would be released to the atmosphere....If the state shift is abrupt it may lead to a massive release ....which could cause a climatic jump several-fold greater than the accumulated effect of anthropogenic activity." [19]

According to the world-renowned climate expert who has done more than any other to alert world attention to the crisis -- James Hansen:
"Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points -- the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates. These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity." [20]

"We are in a planetary emergency." [21]

Runaway Methane Feedback:
The End of Life as We Know It?

A large methane release would in itself be a catastrophic event -- as described in the Nature article. But the threat from methane could yet escalate to another level of existential nightmare. Ira Leifer comments on what is called a "runaway feedback":
"A runaway feedback effect would be where methane comes out of the ocean into the atmosphere leading to warming, leading to warmer oceans and more methane coming out, causing an accelerated rate of warming in what one could describe as a runaway train....

"The amount of methane that's trapped under the permafrost and in hydrates in the Arctic areas is so large that if it was rapidly released it could radically change the atmosphere in a way that would probably be unstoppable and inimicable to human life."

The British expert with over 30 years of experience studying Arctic ice issues -- Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University -- was asked by the author to respond to the question "Are there any natural "brakes" in the Arctic ecosystem that would prevent a large methane release from escalating into an unstoppable runaway reaction?" His response:
"There are no brakes. The methane release itself results as a positive feedback from another warming-generated process, the retreat of summer sea ice. So we have global warming causing summer sea ice retreat causing offshore permafrost thawing causing methane release causing a big instant warming boost causing endless other positive feedbacks." [23]

Several cutting edge observations by scientists are presented in a documentary co-produced by this writer (available free on YouTube [24]), featuring the immensely respected James Hansen. In reference to the radical temperature increase that would be caused by a major release of methane, Hansen warns that "it's not clear that civilization could survive that extreme of a climate change." [25]

Rising sea levels will indeed flood many of the coastal cities of the world and their residents will be confronted with great chaos and strife. Their populations will be forced to migrate inland, but that in itself does not represent a collapse of civilization.

The kind of radical heat brought on by a major methane release will not permit any escape. Life cannot be sustained without adequate food and water, yet such capacity would be severely impacted.

Time is not on our side. If human society does not recognize the danger and take concerted action to prevent it, colossal natural forces are simply going to run their course. Circumstances would disintegrate in a manner that humanity could no longer control.

Yet in the precious time we have to act before such a point is reached, our society is utterly failing to do so. In Part Two, a hard look is taken at this failure at many levels -- in the hope that such can be reversed before time runs out.

1. Is Arctic Permafrost the "Sleeping Giant" of Climate Change? -- NASA ...
2. Thinking About the Unthinkable by David Orr We ... -- Moral Ground
3. James Hansen -- Humanity Cannot "Adapt" -- YouTube
(brief clip from interview for documentary "Arctic Methane: Why the Sea Ice Matters")
4. Global-warming potential -- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
5. "The Day Earth Nearly Died" (BBC documentary) : http://youtu.be/d572KkFSEg8
6. The Day The Oceans Boiled (VARIOUS SEGMENTS) Part 3 -- YouTube
(9 minute clip from UK Channel 4 documentary)
7. Permian-Triassic Extinction
(video: two minute overview by PBS)
8. (A) An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How ...(Summary of over 60 studies)
(B) IEA's Bombshell Warning: We're Headed Toward 11°F Global ...
(C) Shocking World Bank Climate Report: 'A 4°C [7°F] World Can, And ...
10. Same as link #1
11. Arctic Sea Ice: The Death Spiral Continues | ThinkProgress
12. Geochemical and geophysical evidence of methane release over ...
Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from ... -- Science
nsf.gov -- National Science Foundation (NSF) News -- Methane ... (National Science Foundation press release)
13. Interview for documentary "ARCTIC METHANE: Why the Sea Ice Matters
14. Vast methane 'plumes' seen in Arctic ocean as sea ice retreats ...
15. Danger from the deep: New climate threat as methane rises from ...
16. IPS -- Thawing Permafrost May Be "Huge Factor" in Global Warming ..
17. Same link as #1
18. NSIDC Press Room: Press Release: UNEP report urges ...
19. Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change : Nature : Nature ...
Methane meltdown: The Arctic timebomb that ... -- The Independent
20. Methane hydrates: a volatile time bomb in the Arctic
21. Bloomberg, August 17, 2012
22. AFP: 'Planetary emergency' due to Arctic melt, experts warn
23. Interview for documentary "ARCTIC METHANE: Why the Sea Ice Matters"
24. Email exchange with the author
25. "ARCTIC METHANE: Why the Sea Ice Matters" http://youtu.be/iSsPHytEnJM
26. Same as link #3

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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