(Barrow Methane Record 2009 to Present. Image source: NOAA)
In late June and early July, Barrow Alaska showed two methane readings in excess of 1975 parts per billion. Sadly, this most recent methane spike is likely not to be an outlier.
The Barrow spike came in conjunction with a number of other anomalously high methane readings in the Arctic region during 2013. Most notably, the Kara, Barents and Norwegian Seas all showed atmospheric methane levels spiking to as high as 1935 parts per billion during the first half of 2013.
(Kara, Barents, Norwegian Methane. Image source: Dr. Yurganov)
Averages in this and other regions around the Arctic are at new record highs even as atmospheric methane levels continue inexorably upward. For reference, Mauna Loa shows average global atmospheric methane levels are now at around 1830 parts per billion. These levels were around 700 parts per billion at the start of the industrial revolution before they rocketed upward, roughly alongside increasing CO2 concentrations, as fossil fuel based industry saw its dramatic expansion over the past couple of centuries.
Now, human global warming is beginning to unlock a monstrous store of methane in the Arctic. A source that, in the worst case, could be many times the volume of the initial human emission. To this point, areas around the Arctic are now showing local methane levels above 1950 parts per billion with an ever-increasing frequency. The issue is of great concern to scientists, a number of which from NASA are now involved in an investigative study to unearth how large and damaging this methane beast is likely to become. (You can keep account of these methane spike regions in real time using the Methane Tracker Google app linked here. )
CARVE Finds 150 Mile Wide Methane Plumes
A NASA program is now surveying Arctic methane releases to determine their level of amplifying feedback to human caused warming. Understanding the Arctic’s response to human warming is very important because vast stores of carbon many times the volume of human emissions over the past 200 years lay locked in both permafrost and in methane hydrates throughout the Arctic. As humans have caused the Earth to warm, sea ice and tundra melt have allowed organic carbon to decompose and bubble up in the form of methane and CO2 with ever greater force. Since a significant fraction of these Arctic carbon releases are in the form of methane, and because methane provides as much as 100 times the warming effect of CO2 by volume, even a small proportionate release of this vast carbon store could provide an extraordinarily powerful amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.
Recent studies have found that only a 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature increase puts these stores in jeopardy of large release. The amount of warming since the start of the Industrial Revolution is already at least .8 degrees Celsius (about 1/6th the difference between now and the last ice age, but on the side of hot). Perhaps more importantly, temperature forcing by human greenhouse gas emissions have done proportionately more work to melt ice and warm oceans than previously expected. As a result, the ice which locks in these vast carbon stores is disappearing at a rate far greater than most global models anticipated. This more rapid pace of thaw causes Earth Systems feedbacks to human warming to be an increasingly dire issue now.
As a result, we already have numerous instances of increased methane release around the Arctic. In 2011, a Russian expedition to the East Siberian Arctic shelf found vast plumes of methane 1 kilometer across rising up from the sea bed. All across the Arctic, researchers are finding methane bubbling up from tundra melt ponds. The concentrations of some of these melt ponds are so high that, in some cases, they burst into plumes of flame when lit.
(Methane release from Arctic Melt ponds in high enough concentration to burn when lit. Image source: Sustainable Development Blog)
These methane sources also provide a serious fire hazard to the fragile Arctic environment, serving as fuel to massive tundra fires. Such fuel sources likely worsened a number of Arctic fires including this year’s Quebec inferno in which a single fire consumed 1,600,000 acres and sent plumes of smoke all the way across the Atlantic to Europe or last year’s Siberian fires that consumed millions of acres and whose smokes crossed the Pacific to fill valleys in Canada. The soot from these fires is yet one more amplifying feedback to climate change, as evidenced in a recent Los Alamos Laboratories study. Arctic fires, of late, have packed a punch far more powerful than even their southern brethren who’ve caused so much damage and loss to communities in recent years. The explosive nature of these tundra fires is plainly visible in this image of a massive Alaska blaze, larger than Rhode Island, provided below:
(Image source: New Scientist)
Now, CARVE is finding its own evidence of massive Arctic methane emissions. Charles Miller, NASA’s principle investigator for the CARVE project, in a recent article, noted that the mission had discovered numerous atmospheric methane plumes in the Arctic. Some of these atmospheric plumes were of immense and troubling size, stretching as wide as 150 miles across.
Miller also notes:
“As temperatures warm, it’s thought that … organic materials could decompose more rapidly and give rise to gases such as carbon dioxide and methane,” Miller said. “The anticipated release of carbon should accelerate climate change…I think the experts all agree that that’s the case. The question that we’re grappling with is how much carbon might be vulnerable to release, and how fast might it be released.”
The CARVE mission is still in progress and end results are pending. But these initial reports from Miller and his team add to the disturbing evidence already arising from the Arctic. Evidence that became widely apparent in 2012 as Arctic methane release emerged as a powerful amplifying feedback to human-caused warming. In short, it appears that the Arctic methane response to human warming began sometime late last century and ramped up throughout the 2000s. Now, the Arctic appears to be providing an increasingly powerful amplifying feedback to human caused warming. It is a dangerous situation and one that should be abated as swiftly as possible through a prompt series of ongoing actions.
To these points, the following video, provided by NBC News gives excellent context.
I would, however, like to add one caveat:
Global warming is not likely to unfold in a manner similar to the events depicted in the sci-fi movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” The pace of damage will be slower at first with weather worsening over time, sea level rise gradually worsening, and impacts to crops and agriculture increasing year by year, decade by decade. In this long ramping up period, there are increasing risks of single catastrophic events. But such events won’t have a neat finish. They will happen again and again, with risks and effects worsening as atmospheric heat energy increases. Perhaps, most importantly, humans will have to recover from these events in base conditions that are already difficult to manage.
As such, human climate change represents a long emergency of increasingly worsening base conditions even as the risk of increasingly damaging catastrophic events continues to rise over time. It is this ratcheting effect of climate change that makes it so deadly. The increasingly difficult base conditions make maintenance of human civilization far more difficult even as it reduces the chance that human systems will effectively recover from a number of devastating catastrophes that are surely in the pipe.
Once the climate juggernaut gets rolling it unleashes and multiplies a number of terribly monstrous and ever-worsening events. And it is for this critical reason that we need to get a handle on our carbon emissions as rapidly as possible.