Thursday, January 16, 2014

High methane levels over the Arctic Ocean on January 14, 2014

[ click on image to enlarge - note that 'level' is the peak reading for the respective altitude ]
Above image shows IASI methane levels on January 14, 2014, when levels as high as 2329 ppb were recorded. This raises a number of questions. Did these high methane levels originate from releases from the Arctic Ocean, and if so, how could such high methane releases occur from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean at this time of year, when temperatures in the northern hemisphere are falling?


Let's first establish where the methane releases occurred that caused these high levels. After all, high methane concentrations are visible at a number of areas, most prominently at three areas, i.e. at the center of the Arctic Ocean, in Baffin Bay and over an area in Asia stretching out from the Taklamakan Desert to the Gobi Desert.

Closer examination, illustrated by the inset, shows that the highest methane levels were recorded in the afternoon, and at altitudes where methane concentrations over these Asian deserts and over Baffin Bay were less prominent, leading to the conclusion that these high methane levels did indeed originate from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean.

The image below, showing 1950+ ppb readings over the past few days, illustrates the magnitude of the methane concentrations over the Arctic Ocean.

High concentrations persist over the Arctic Ocean

High methane concentrations have persistently shown up over the Arctic Ocean from October 1, 2013, through to January 2014. On January 19, 2014, levels as high as 2363 ppb were recorded over the Arctic Ocean, as illustrated by the image below.

[ click on image to enlarge ]

What caused these high releases from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean to persist for so long? At this time of year, one may have thought that the water in the Arctic Ocean would be much colder than it was, say, on October 1, 2013.

Actually, as the combination image below shows, sea surface temperatures have not decreased much at the center of the Arctic Ocean between early October, 2013 (left) and January 14, 2014 (right). In the area where these high methane concentrations occured, sea surface temperatures have remained the same, at about zero degrees Celsius.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
Furthermore, as the above image shows, surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean may have fallen dramatically with the change of season, but temperatures in the Arctic Ocean have changed only little.

In this case of course, what matters more than surface temperatures are water temperatures at greater depth. Yet, even here temperatures in the Arctic Ocean will have decreased only slightly since early October 2013, as the Gulf Stream has continued to push warmer water into the Arctic, i.e. water warmer than the water in the Arctic Ocean. In other words, the heating impact of the Gulf Stream has continued.

Furthermore, as the sea ice extent increased, there have been less opportunities for the heat to evaporate on the surface and for heat to be transferred from the Arctic Ocean to the air.

Finally, what matters a lot is salinity. The combination image below compares salinity levels between October 1, 2013 (left), and January 14, 2014 (right).

[ click on image to enlarge ]
Salinity levels were low on October 1, 2013, as a lot of ice and snow had melted in the northern summer and rivers had carried a lot of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean. After October 1, 2013, little or no melting took place, yet the Gulf Stream continued to carry waters with higher salt levels from the Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic Ocean.

Annual mean sea surface salinity
Seawater typically has a salinity level of over 3%; it freezes and melts at about −2°C (28°F). Where more saline water from the Atlantic Ocean flows into the Arctic Ocean, the water in the Arctic Ocean becomes more saline. The freezing and melting point of fresh water (i.e. zero salinity) is 0°C (or 32°F). More salinity makes frozen water more prone to melting, i.e. at temperatures lower than 0°C, or as low as −2°C.

As the salinity levels of the water on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean increased, the ice that had until then held the methane captive in hydrates on the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean started to melt. Indeed, the areas in the Arctic Ocean where the high methane releases occurred on January 14, 2014 (top image) show several practical salinity units (psu) increase since October 1, 2013.

Higher salinity levels are now reaching the faultline that runs through the Arctic Ocean from the top of Greenland to the Laptev Sea, where major releases are taking place now, as illustrated by the image below, with faultlines added on the insets.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
Above image shows methane levels recorded on the evening of January 16, 2014 (main image). The top left inset shows all methane readings of 1950 ppb and higher on January 15 and 16, 2014, while the bottom left inset shows methane readings of 1950 ppb and higher on January 16, 2014, p.m. only and for seven layers only (from 469 to 586 mb), when levels as high as 2353 ppb were reached (at 469 mb).


These high levels of methane showing up over the Arctic Ocean constitute only part of the methane that did escape from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. Where these high concentrations did show up, the ocean can be thousands of meters deep, giving microbes plenty of opportunity to decompose methane rising through the water first. Furthermore, the methane has to pass through sea ice that is now getting more than one meter thick in the area where these high levels of methane showed up on satellite records. In conclusion, the quantities of methane that were actually released from the seafloor must have been huge.

Importantly, these are not one-off releases, such as could be the case when hydrates get destabilized by an earthquake. As the Arctic-news blog has documented, high releases from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean have been showing up persistently since early October 2013, i.e. three months ago. This blog has warned about the threat for years. This blog has also described in detail the mechanisms that are causing these releases and the unfolding climate catastrophe that looks set to become more devastating every year.

Given that a study submitted in April 2013 concluded that 17 Tg annually was escaping from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf alone, given the vast quantity of the releases from hydrates that show up on IASI readings and given the prolonged periods over which releases from hydrates can persist, I put the methane being released from hydrates under the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean in the highest category, rivaling global emissions from fossil fuel, from agriculture and from wetlands. As said, the amounts of methane being released from hydrates will be greater than the methane that actually reaches the atmosphere. To put a figure on the latter, my estimate is that emissions from hydrates and permafrost currently amount to 100 Tg annually, a figure that is growing rapidly. This 100 Tg includes 1 Tg for permafrost, similar to IPCC estimates.

This is vastly more than the IPCC's most recent estimates, which put emissions from hydrates and permafrost at 7 Tg annually, a mere 1% of the total annual methane emissions globally, as illustrated by the image below.

Impacts and Response

Huge releases from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean have occurred persistently since early October 2013, even when releases like this may show up for one day in one area without showing up in that same area the next day on satellite images.

This apparent 'disappearance' can be due to the Coriolis effect that appears to move the methane, whereas it is in fact the Earth that is spinning underneath the methane. This doesn't mean that the methane had disappeared. Actually, much of this methane will persist over the Arctic for many years to come and will continue to exercize its very high initial warming potential over the Arctic for years.

Furthermore, even if less methane may show up on satellite images the next day, that doesn't necessarily mean that releases from the seafloor has stopped. Instead, it looks like methane is being released continuously from destabilizing hydrates. The methane may accumulate underneath the sea ice for some time, to burst through at a moment when fractures or ruptures occur in the sea ice, due to changes in wind and wave height.

The threat here is that methane will further warm up the air over the Arctic, causing further weakening of the Jet Stream and further extreme weather events, particularly extreme warming of water all the way along the path of the Gulf Stream from the Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic Ocean, in turn triggering further releases from hydrates at the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean and escalating into runaway global warming. This threat calls for comprehensive and effective action, such as described at the ClimatePlan blog.


  1. Is there a guess as to why there are large concentrations around the Mongolia/Gobi desert? It is so arid, I wonder how CH4 collects over it. Is the CH4 local in origin or does it collect there from various other locations?

    1. The Arctic-news blog focuses on events in the Arctic, but methane releases from hydrates elsewhere have been discussed in a number of posts at the methane-hydrates blog.

  2. A large slot in the area of ​​old ice.

    Do not look at the comments at the bottom. In Poland, the global warming, it is still difficult subject.

  3. I am most alarmed at the trend, and the putative mechanisms in play, working all together.
    I wasn't aware that methane release was accelerating so much from arctic sea bed, through the failing ice shield. Especially near the time of expected peak seasonal ice growth . Who else has analysed the data, and supported the interpretation? How long will this last? Relation to freak winter weather, aka "polar vortex", felt in the USA?

    In the long run, its the loss of albedo, extra CO2 from broken down methane, and change of polar climate, leading to further ice sheet and permafrost melt, and evidence that arctic tipping points have been breached, all at once. What is the estimated rate of methane release (yearly), and likely effect on global average methane?

    1. Hi Michael, I estimate that methane emissions from hydrates amount to 99 Tg annually, a figure that is growing rapidly. I've just added images to the post to put that figure into perspective.