Beneath the Cracking, Melting Ice, the Arctic Methane Monster Continues its Ominous Rumbling

Methane Concentration

(Large Northern Hemisphere methane overburden points to major Arctic emission. Image source: NASA)

“How am I going to be an optimist about this?” — excerpt from Pompey

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In the high north, deep beneath the sea ice, sequestered within the sea bed, sleeps a monster. A massive store of methane that is the relic of ages past. A beast whose vast body is composed of hundreds of gigatons of this climatologically volatile gas.

Since times immemorial, the monster slumbered. Accumulating vast size and girth through a near constant rain and sequestration of biological material as the long ages passed. Until human time, that is, when an unprecedented warming began to prod the monster to waking. And so, during recent years, the monster has stirred, even as more and more of this gas has been observed escaping into the atmosphere.

What is happening can be compared to the, at this time, slow initial rumblings of a climate volcano. The gas, forced out of its icy traps in the sea bed, escapes into the ocean where it destabilizes the sea bed and wrecks jarring changes on the marine environment. It bubbles up beneath the ice, running along beneath the strong ice to find holes where the ice is weak, or escaping out from under the ice edge. And in these places, it runs out into the atmosphere. There, the gas is between 20 and 100 times as potent a warming agent as CO2 by volume. There, it inevitably adds to the human warming and emissions nightmare now underway.

In other places the tundra thaws, unleashing its own monstrous volumes of methane, adding to the giant emerging from the troubled seas.

We have seen the large and growing escape of methane in the great 1 kilometer plumes in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and in other large releases off of Svalbard. We have seen them in the 150 kilometer atmospheric plumes observed by NASA’s CARVE study. We have seen them in ‘hot’ melt lakes that bubble with methane dense enough to burn. We have seen them in the explosive Arctic fires that burn the thawing and volatile land itself.

These all-too-obvious hints of steadily increasing emissions are ominous, not only for their current warming contribution, but for the potential of an even more rapid and violent release. For the eruption of the methane monster, though somewhat gradual now, could, in the build-up to an immense disaster rarely witnessed on Earth, evolve into an ever more deadly and rapid release.

There is evidence of such events in the geological past. Events that have left their black fingerprints splattered over most, if not all, of the climate mass extinctions. And there are a handful of leading scientists who are very concerned that such an event may well be in the offing.

The Methane Monster Continues its, For Now Gradual, Emergence


(Image source: Dr. Yurganov)

Unfortunately, 2013-2014 marked the continuation of a dangerous trend where, once again, rates of Arctic methane emission were shown to increase markedly over those seen during previous years. In the above series of enhanced Aqua satellite images, provided by Dr. Leonid Yurganov you can see the steadily increasing volume of atmospheric methane in Arctic regions during a time of typical methane peaks in late January from 2009 to 2013.

A more comprehensive slide-show ensemble displays Arctic methane increases from 2003 through 2012 here. It is is worth noting that top scale values were 1870 ppb in this video series. In the more recent series (images above and below), the scale has been increased to a maximum value of 1920 to account for spiking atmospheric levels. So don’t let the moving goal posts fool you!

Though we are still about two weeks away from the start of 2014 Arctic methane peaks, early data throughout the fall and winter has shown a marked increase in methane values when compared to similar periods last year. The below image, as an example, compares January 1-10 of 2013 with the same period of 2014:

methane 2013 to 2014 January 1 to 10

(Image source: Dr. Yurganov and Sam Carana)

These images, also provided by Dr. Yurganov and composed by Sam Carana, show substantial levels of methane increase for the Arctic during early January of 2014 when compared to the same period in 2013. Especially of note was the significant increase in methane concentrations over the Barents Sea where values were consistently higher than 1920 parts per billion.

It is worth mentioning that during 2009, the same region saw methane levels in the range of 1870 parts per billion and that the jump of +50 ppb or more during this interval is roughly consistent with global average increases. What is more concerning, however, is that these maps clearly show this region of the Arctic as a primary methane hot spot, indicating the likelihood of a very large emission seeping out from under the ice and up from the depths of the ocean.

Overall methane spikes in the Arctic were very significant with, according to observations from Methane Tracker, values exceeding extraordinary levels of 2400 parts per billion in local spikes.

NOAA’s ERSL monitor at Barrow also found large local spikes in the range of 1995 parts per billion during late December:

Barrow Methane 2012 to 2013

(Image source: NOAA ERSL)

Note that local methane levels at Barrow, Alaska on the Arctic Circle have risen from an average of 1895 ppb during early 2012 to about 1920 ppb by early 2014, an increase of more than 12 parts per billion per year.

Globally, methane levels have also been on the rise. The record at the Mauna Loa Observatory is now closing in on 1840 parts per billion and shows a significant upward curve during the past two year interval. Though not rising as fast as regions close to the large Arctic emissions sources, the Mauna Loa measure shows a jump of about 15 parts per billion over the two year interval from early 2012 to early 2014.

Mauna Loa Methane 2001 to 2014

(Image source: NOAA ESRL)

Above we can see the global trend line for methane as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Note that methane increases had slowed during the period of 2001 to 2006. But in 2007, at about the time Arctic sea ice began its rapid retreat, methane levels commenced a rapid rise. Of particular concern is the gradual upturn in the global average methane curve leading into early 2014.

Very High Arctic Temperature Anomalies Coincide With Rising Methane Levels

As methane levels have continued to rise throughout the Arctic, so have winter temperatures. During 2013-2014, abnormal Arctic winter warmth, especially over the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea, and the Bering Sea, has played havoc with Northern Hemisphere weather. In early January, a spate of intense Arctic warmth collapsed the polar vortex, shoving a powerful remnant low southward and setting off a 20 year cold snap in the US. The same extreme winter weather pattern that has impacted much of the US also unloaded a fusillade of storms on the coastlines of the British isles, breaking thousand ton rock structures and reshaping seemingly impervious coastlines.

In this case, the added methane release contributes to polar warming amplification and, at this time, is setting in line a series of increasingly violent weather events likely to ramp up over the coming years and decades. In such cases, the methane monster’s contributions to warming cannot be detached from the changing climate as a whole. In fact, it is the kind of amplifying feedback that makes our situation far more dangerous.

Arctic 30 day anomaly a

(30 day Global Temperature Anomaly from 1981 to 2010 base line. Image source: NOAA)

Note the extreme temperature anomalies over the past 30 days throughout much of the high Arctic with extremes ranging from 2-6 degrees Celsius above the, already warmer than normal, 1981 to 2010 average. This is just the kind of heat, in conjunction with rising greenhouse gasses, that we would expect from an Arctic undergoing dangerous, if not yet catastrophic, change.

Is Optimism Rational?

Given the evidence showing an amplifying methane signal coming from the Arctic, a signal that becomes louder with each passing year, it becomes more difficult to cling to the comfort provided by a number of the more conservative scientists on the issue of methane release (hydrates, compost bomb or other). Though we have not yet seen major releases large enough to push global methane levels higher by 50, 100 or more parts per billion per year (as we would see during an exceptionally catastrophic event), what we have seen is a growing Arctic release that remains a serious cause for concern.

In such an instance, we might be wise to compare the Arctic Methane Monster to a massive volcano. One that continues to rumble even as it releases ever greater volumes of its climatologically volatile and heat-contributing gasses. As anyone living in the neighborhood of a volcano can attest, it’s generally not a good idea to ignore such things. In this case, the monstrous volcano is so large as to make all the Earth its neighborhood. So we should all be paying attention.




Methane Tracker

Climate Change Driven Storms Reshape Coastlines of the British Isles

Arctic News

Arctic Ice Graphs

Playing with Global Fire

Amplifying Feedbacks

It’s The Collapsing Polar Vortex

Arctic Methane Monster Stirs


Persistent Arctic Cyclone Strengthens, Greenland Melts, Warm Air Building Around The Arctic

Before we go into a round-up of today’s Arctic sea ice conditions and melt forecasts, it’s important to note a few things. The first is that the Arctic has suffered an amazing loss of sea ice since 1979. An 80% volume loss and a 55% percent area loss over the past 33 years is an ominous event that will continue to impact our climate for years and decades to come. It is also a signal of how little resilience remains to the ice.

The Arctic, as such, bears deep and abiding scars inflicted by human-caused climate change. The sea ice remembers well these scars. Less energy will be needed to melt the ice than was necessary thirty, twenty, or event ten years ago. And the wounds inflicted in 2012 may prevent the Arctic from ever recovering to any state similar to the cold, frozen environment we once knew. Instead, we’ve entered a period of lasting damage and rapid change. A period where an extreme lack of resiliency is visible in nearly all regions of the sea ice pack.

Signs now show a speedy and violent loss of Arctic sea ice integrity — over the entire ice pack.

Re-Strengthening Cyclone

One part of this story is an Arctic Cyclone (Persistent Arctic Cyclone 2013 or PAC 2013) that emerged on May 26th and has continued to plow through the dense ice at the Arctic’s center ever since. At its strongest, the storm showed pressures in the range of 975-980 millibars. Today, the storm deepened to similar levels:


(Image source: DMI)

The storm is now centered in the northern Laptev Sea, drifting close to an area thinned by warmer temperatures and early-season sea ice melt. Since the ice in this region is less resilient than the thicker ice of the Central Arctic, we can expect more visible thinning. Physical impacts from the storm — churning, mixing, upwelling and potentially above freezing surface precipitation — are all likely to erode sea ice in areas beneath its circulation.

The US Navy’s CICE/HYCOM model displays strongly enhanced melt and thinning projected for this region over the coming days:

Persistent Arctic Cyclone churns through Laptev on June 9-11

Persistent Arctic Cyclone 2013 is forecast to churn through the Laptev sea ice on June 9-13 before returning to Central Arctic. The above thickness model shows current and projected impacts.

(Image source: US Navy)

Note the large region of melting and thinning ice stretching from a swath directly north of Siberia, through the Laptev Sea and on toward the North Pole. The counter-clockwise motion of the storm is projected to pull the ice apart even as the physical forces of the storm, described above, further thin the ice. In many instances, we see the ice projected to thin to between 1.2 and .8 meters.

Meanwhile, an area directly under the North Pole is projected to break and thin further as PAC 2013 returns to the Central Arctic later in the forecast period.

ECMWF model forecasts show PAC 2013 moving to hover over the Canadian Archipelago by June 18th. The storm is expected to continue until at least June 20th, nearly a month after its entry into the Arctic on about May 26th.

Warm Air Building Around the Arctic

As the Persistent Arctic Cyclone of 2013 continues to rage near the Arctic’s heart, warmer air keeps funneling in around and behind it.  Near Kamchatka, a northward bulge in the jet stream bore a bubble of warmer temperatures up into the Arctic. Over the past day or two, these average above freezing temperatures have spread to cover much of the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas, a knuckle of this warmer air reaches almost all the way to the North Pole even as the region of below 0 Celsius temperatures stretches and thins.


(Image source: DMI)

This large bulge of warmer air also shows areas near the Mackenzie Delta and in the East Siberian Sea with average temperatures above 5 degrees Celsius and areas hugging the coast averaging above 10 degrees Celsius. This is a powerful warming that is likely to impact ice-covered regions.

Models show warmth in the area continuing through at least next week. Barrow Alaska, notably, is predicted to see high temperatures around 65 degrees Fahrenheit by this Thursday.

The see-saw motion of the Persistent Arctic Cyclone has now alternately drawn warm air in from Scandinavia and Kamchatka. It is worth noting that a region of hot air has again developed over North-Eastern Europe. These warmer temperatures, should they persist, are likely to be drawn into the Arctic when/if the Cyclone again shifts to the Canadian side of the Central Arctic.

A more current temperature map shows this warming as a display of hot pinks over North-Eastern Europe, with warmer air even extending into the Kara Sea. A cursory look also shows very few readings below the -2 Celsius freezing point of sea water. Yet one more sign that warmth is building.


(Image source: Uni-Koeln)


Greenland Melting

It is also worth noting that the coldest reading on Greenland, now, is -1 Celsius, where warming temperatures there have fueled a burst of early season glacial melt. Melt values have spiked well above what is typical for June and entered territory usually reserved for July — the height of the Greenland melt season.

Melt areas for Greenland spiked to over 20% of the ice sheet surface over the past few days. Maximum melt area averages around 23% during mid July. So Greenland melt this year is already at least a month ahead of schedule and has more than caught up with slower melt experienced during May.


(Image source: NSIDC)

Last year, Geenland set new melt records with melt exceeding any period in at least the past 120 years.

Overall, conditions throughout the Arctic point toward a rapidly progressing melt season. Temperature measures and temperature and weather forecasts over the coming days are likely to continue to push more rapid sea ice melt. Sea ice edge melt and damage due to the ongoing Persistent Arctic Cyclone of 2013 are likely to be the greatest contributors. Large spikes in early season melt to record or near record values are certainly possible given current conditions.

Greenland melt, already proceeding more rapidly than normal, will also bear close watching. It may be possible that melt values will challenge records set in 2012. Should such an event occur, we will have yet more proof that current, very rapid, ongoing, and increasing Greenland melt is well outside the range of ‘normal.”


US Navy






Sea Ice Melt: When 2040 Predictions Could Happen Tomorrow


(NCAR sea ice predictions for 2040)

The above image shows NCAR’s 2006 prediction for potential sea ice losses by 2040, but current rates of sea ice loss could result in such conditions within 1-6 years.

Sea ice melt. It’s something we should all be concerned about. That protective cap of ice over the northern polar region provides a number of beneficial services. Its white, reflective layer cools the Earth, reflecting sun into space. As such it is a haven for Earth’s cold air stores. It also rests above a shallow sea filled with sequestered carbon. The cold cap locks these stores in, keeping them out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Such a large cap of cold ice also has powerful regional influences. Over the past 10,000 years, it has ensured the health of adjacent land tundra which also sequesters massive volumes of carbon locked in organic material. Sea ice and tundra form an insulator that protects Greenland’s massive ice sheets from melt even as they establish a regional climate system that benefits Earth’s life by providing stability in temperatures and weather patterns.

They also form a first line of defense against runaway global warming.

Yet this system — its cold air, its glaciers, its tundra, and its sea ice — is in increasing jeopardy. Sea ice, which is a primary insulator keeping cold air in the Arctic, has declined about 55% by area and 80% by volume since 1979. This loss of ice reduces reflectivity during summer months and enables greater ocean heat uptake, further hastening melt. It also results in warmer seas during winter time, which helps to keep air temperatures much warmer during the coldest season. This one, two punch has the net effect of pushing melt at ever more rapid paces. Now, yearly volume losses are enough, if sustained, to bring the Arctic Ocean to a nearly ice-free state by 2016 plus or minus three years.

For context, take a look at the above NCAR picture again and then take a look at this picture of end summer sea ice in 2012.


(Image source: Cryosphere Today)

Not too different, are they?

Another single year loss equivalent to 2012 would push sea ice to a state comparable to the NCAR prediction for 2040. And such a loss could happen this year, or next year, or the following. Unless current trends reverse (an unlikely event given an increasing CO2 forcing), then NCAR’s 2040 prediction will almost certainly happen before 2020.

We are losing the northern polar sea ice. And we are losing it far more rapidly than previously anticipated. With it, we are losing all the beneficial services sea ice provides. So as the sea ice recedes more sunlight will be absorbed by the Earth’s northern oceans. As this happens, oceans will warm faster, melting tundra. Together, warmer seas and warmer tundra will release more methane into the atmosphere. Over time, this will produce more warming. All the added heat will push Greenland to melt at an increasing rate. The flushes of fresh, cold water from Greenland together with loss of sea ice will play havoc with northern hemisphere weather as cold and hot air build up and battle in places where they hadn’t before. Europe and portions of North America will see especially severe impacts from this whip-sawing climate. But the impacts of ice melt and polar amplification will be global, creating weather that is likely to make a mess of the world’s growing seasons, resulting in potentially severe impacts to the world’s food security. Lastly, a more rapidly melting Greenland will increase the rate of sea level rise.

This is why sea ice isn’t just an image on a map or a number on a chart. This is why loss of sea ice is much, much more than an opportunity to drill in the Arctic. An ‘opportunity’ that will only serve to make a growing problem worse.

If Earth were a space ship, its captains and crew would consider the sea ice one of its key human life support systems. Its health and stability would be a primary contributor to the safety of passengers and crew members. Loss of sea ice, in this case, would mean a loss of a vital life support and climate stability system. After loss of sea ice, life on space ship Earth becomes more difficult and the risk of harm to its passengers grows.

This is why we should all be concerned about the dramatic sea ice losses we are now witnessing. This is why we should view the cynical Arctic profiteering of the oil companies with dread. And this is why we should do our very best to slow and halt the human-caused changes that are robbing us of that vital, protective layer of ice over our northern oceans.


The Arctic Ice “Death Spiral”

Arctic Refreeze Still Slow; Ice Area, Extent, At Record Lows For the Date; Storms Pulling Warm Air Up From South

Today, Arctic sea ice is currently at its record low for the date in all measures for extent and area. Cyrosphere Today is showing sea ice area at 3.57 million square kilometers. This is 270,000 square kilometers below the record low set for this date back in 2007. Sea ice extent, according to JAXA, is also about 350,000 square kilometers below the record low for today set in 2007 as well.

Refreeze has been at the pace of about 75,000 square kilometers per day. If this pace continues, the Arctic will experience record low or near record low sea ice coverage through much of the fall.

We have seen strong heat transport into the Arctic this year with temperatures above average over most of the Arctic. The below graph shows temperatures as high as 15-17 degrees Celsius above average covering broad swaths of the Arctic Ocean. These large areas are, likely, remaining warm due to heat transfer through the, mostly unfrozen, ocean surface and via heat transport of warmer air from the south by an ongoing change in the polar wind pattern.

One of the primary vehicles of heat transport this year has been storms. Currently, a moderate Arctic cyclone is circulating in an area just north of the Canadian Archipelago. Its convective swirl is drawing moisture and warmer air up from the south and depositing it over open water and over regions currently attempting re-freeze. You can see the convective swirl of heat energy associated with this storm in the temperature graph below.

Notice the curlicue pattern of green and blue as warmer air invades from the south, displacing colder air to the north. Another interesting and concerning feature on this map is the fact that cold temperatures have displaced toward the south, near Greenland. Meanwhile, the northern geographic pole has become prone to warmer temperature fluxes and incursions from the south.

These observations appear to be a validation of the new trend of heat transport into the Arctic, increasing rate of Arctic temperature rise, more rapid melt, and a rising risk of extreme weather due to a change in circumpolar wind patterns identified in a recent report from NOAA.


Earth Alone


Earth. A lonely world in a vast universe. And all around us, in our solar system, and even in the places barely visible through the lengthening vision of our telescopes, are dead worlds. Barren worlds. Hellish hot worlds. Strange giant gas worlds. Frozen worlds. But none hospitable to the rich variety of life all around us.

There is poetry here. It is the poetry of beauty. Of singular wonder. Of a gift or of the great good fortune that we ended up here, the only place we could have come to be. It is also the poetry of loneliness and desperation. For if anything happened to this world. For if the world changed even just a bit. It becomes far, far less likely that we would continue. Change a little more and the chances for life existing on Earth grow slim indeed.

Massive things in motion

In many ways we are beholden to the enormous natural forces that surround us. There is much we cannot control — the fall of an asteroid, the explosion of a supervolcano, a gamma-ray burst all would result in changes that are likely beyond the scope of human beings to adapt or overcome. But there is also much we can control. And there are many things we can do to reduce the likelihood for harm coming to our world at our own hands.


There are 7 billion human beings living here. This is seven hundred times the number of hunter gatherers the world supported 10,000 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, sustainability experts set a cautious growth limit for humans on Earth at around 6 billion. Even at the time of the first reports, 4 billion human beings were causing major stresses to the world environment. Species loss was accelerating, resources were beginning to deplete, forests were disappearing, and pollution was creating greater and greater impacts. Loss of ozone was already a threat and reductions in the use of pesticides were needed to protect key species. It was also becoming clear that human emissions of CO2 more than a hundred times that emitted by volcanoes was starting to warm our climate.

Some sustainability experts, like the authors of the ground-breaking book Limits to Growth, made appeals for building a livable path forward. A transition to technologies that did less harm. A transition to ways of living that produced less children. A transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. The hope was to sustain civilization. To prevent overshoot. To preserve a world hospitable for human life. But few people listened and few of the policies were enacted. Now, we are in a situation where resources are rapidly depleting, arable land is shrinking, and the climate is growing increasingly hostile. We live in a world of social, political and national unrest. We live in a world of resource wars. A world where the number of refugees from extreme weather exceeds the number of refugees from warfare.

These instance are all signs of overshoot — a situation where the human stresses to Earth are beyond what is sustainable for a livable world. A situation where resource depletion exceeds the natural world’s ability to replace those resources. A situation where the rate of pollution, primarily of CO2, exceeds the ability of sinks to absorb it. A situation where the pollution sinks are filling up and starting to become sources.

The Global Footprint Network makes yearly estimates of how many planets would be needed to support human consumption. And their estimate is that currently 1.5 Earths would be needed to sustain our recent activity indefinitely. Looking forward, under business as usual, Global Footprint estimates that 2.2 Earths will be needed by 2050. Since there is only one Earth, this level of overshoot cannot be sustained indefinitely. And pushing Earth too far beyond its limits results in irreversible damage and a contraction of the world’s carrying capacity to .8, .5, .3 or even zero Earths. Overshoot for too long means we could, potentially, remove ourselves from the planet.




Returning to sustainability means both change and reduction. And, perhaps, this is why it is so unpopular. A drunk or a drug addict doesn’t like to be told he or she needs a change in behavior. And we have grown drunk on growth, addicted to fossil fuels, hooked on over-consumption, stuck in population growth without restraint.

To change to sustainability means more cooperation and less competition. It means more moderate winners and far less losers. It means holding the robber barons to account. It means reducing and removing fossil fuel consumption. It means eating less meat. It means more renewable energy and more localized communities. It means more democratic rule and less hierarchy. It means more freedoms for women to control their family size and when they have children and less oppression of and violence against women. It means more compassion and less selfishness from leaders.

Making a change to sustainability will be a hard lesson to learn. It is even doubtful that we are up to the task. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we fail, if we choose the path of hubris, then we risk losing our civilization, so much of life, and perhaps even our world. It is difficult to make an appeal to humanity’s better angels. But if the angels are listening, please fly to send word!


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