Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Horrific Methane Eruptions in East Siberian Sea

A catastrophe of unimaginable propertions is unfolding in the Arctic Ocean. Huge quantities of methane are erupting from the seafloor of the East Siberian Sea and entering the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean.

As the top image above shows, peak levels as high as 2363 ppb were recorded at an altitude of 19,820 ft (6041 m) on the morning of August 12, 2014. The middle image shows that huge quantities of methane continued to be present over the East Siberian Sea that afternoon, while the bottom image shows that methane levels as high as 2441 ppb were recorded a few days earlier, further indicating that the methane did indeed originate from the seafloor of the East Siberian Sea.

On August 12, 2014, peak methane levels at higher altitudes were even higher than the readings mentioned on above image. Levels as high as 2367 ppb were reached at an altitude of 36,850 ft (11,232 m). Such high levels have become possible as the huge quantities of methane that were released from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean over the period from October 2013 to March 2014, have meanwhile descended to lower latitudes where they show up at higher altitudes.

Methane eruptions from the Arctic Ocean's seafloor helped push up mean global methane levels to readings as high as 1832 ppb on August 12, 2014.

Ironically, the methane started to erupt just as an international team of scientists from Sweden, Russia and the U.S. (SWERUS-C3), visiting the Arctic Ocean to measure methane, had ended their research.

Örjan Gustafsson describes part of their work: “Using the mid-water sonar, we mapped out an area of several kilometers where bubbles were filling the water column from depths of 200 to 500 m. During the preceding 48 h we have performed station work in two areas on the shallow shelf with depths of 60-70m where we discovered over 100 new methane seep sites.”

Örjan Gustafsson adds that “a tongue of relatively warm Atlantic water, with a core at depths of 200–600 m may have warmed up some in recent years. As this Atlantic water, the last remnants of the Gulf Stream, propagates eastward along the upper slope of the East Siberian margin, our SWERUS-C3 program is hypothesizing that this heating may lead to destabilization of upper portion of the slope methane hydrates.”

Schematics of key components of the Arctic climate-cryosphere-carbon system that are addressed by the SWE-C3 Program. a,b) Sonar images of gas plumes in the water column caused by sea floor venting of methane (a: slope west of Svalbard, Westbrook et al., 2009; b: ESAO, Shakhova et al., 2010, Science). c) Coastal erosion of organic-rich Yedoma permafrost, Muostoh Island, SE Laptev Sea. d) multibeam image showing pockmarks from gas venting off the East Siberian shelf. e) distribution of Yedoma permafrost in NE Siberia. f) Atmospheric venting of CH₄, CO₂. (SWERUS-C3)
Örjan Gustafsson further adds that SWERUS-C3 researchers have on earlier expeditions documented extensive venting of methane from the subsea system to the atmosphere over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

In 2010, team members Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov estimated the accumulated methane potential for the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf alone to be as follows:
- organic carbon in permafrost of about 500 Gt;
- about 1000 Gt in hydrate deposits; and
- about 700 Gt in free gas beneath the gas hydrate stability zone.

Back in 2008, Shakhova et al. wrote a paper warning that “we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time.”

Last year, a team of researchers including Professor Peter Wadhams calculated that such a 50 Gt release would cause global damage with a price-tag of $60 trillion.

As Prof Wadhams explains in the video below: “We really have no choice except to seriously consider the use of geoengineering.”

Sea surface temperatures as high as 18.8°C are now recorded at locations where warm water from the Pacific Ocean is threatening to invade the Arctic Ocean.

At the same time, huge amounts of very warm water are carried into the Arctic Ocean by the Gulf Stream through the North Atlantic. The image below illustrates how the Gulf Stream brings very warm water to the edge of the sea ice.

Waters close to Svalbard reached temperatures as high as 62°F (16.4°C) on July 29, 2014 (green circle). Note that the image below shows sea surface temperatures only. At greater depths (say about 300 m), the Gulf Stream is pushing even warmer water through the Greenland Sea than temperatures at the sea surface.

Since the passage west of Svalbard is rather shallow, a lot of this very warm water comes to the surface at that spot, resulting in an anomaly of 11.1°C. The high sea surface temperatures west of Svalbard thus show that the Gulf Stream can carry very warm water (warmer than 16°C) at greater depths and is pushing this underneath the sea ice north of Svalbard. Similarly, warm water from greater depth comes to the surface where the Gulf Stream pushes it against the west coast of Novaya Zemlya.

[ click on image to enlarge ]
As Malcolm Light writes in an earlier post: The West Spitzbergen Current dives under the Arctic ice pack west of Svalbard, continuing as the Yermak Branch (YB on map) into the Nansen Basin, while the Norwegian Current runs along the southern continental shelf of the Arctic Ocean, its hottest core zone at 300 metres depth destabilizing the methane hydrates en route to where the Eurasian Basin meets the Laptev Sea, a region of extreme methane hydrate destabilization and methane emissions.

The images below give an impression of the amount of heat transported into the Arctic Ocean.

The image below gives an idea how methane eruptions from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean could unfold over the coming decades. For more on this image, see this post and this page.

As said, the situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed at the Climate Plan blog at and as illustrated by the image below.


  1. In response to Dr Wadhams call for geo-engineering to gain time in which to get a handle on reducing greenhouse gasses I have to say basically the situation warrants a world conference based on logic.
    There isn't any hedging around the bush, if we as humans can't get greenhouse gas back to normal the acceleration of Earth's 6th great Extinction event won't leave even the slightest hope for a 7th.
    Logic isn't the prime driver of human thought. But it must be made central to the remedy of harm.
    So 1st conference, Open System Engineering a political to war balance to match Civilization to Earth. Situation with heat pulse advance getting at methane clathrate warrants Act of God writ use.

  2. This is an absolute must-read. Holy mother of god that's a well written article. This could push our global warming to a brand new extreme.

  3. So it is written, so shall it be done

  4. Some have criticized the tools and methods used to produce some of these results. However, these results are consistent with other observations in the Arctic going back 50 years (e. g., North Slope oil geology) and they are consistent with current observations in other oceans.

    The real lesson here is that the IPCC should have been paying closer attention.

    1. It's been known for decades that huge quantities of methane are contained in hydrates, especially in the Arctic Ocean, and that they can destabilize due to rising temperatures and/or pressure changes. Many of us have been warning about this for a long time, e.g. see the poster attached to this post. Indeed, one may wonder why the IPCC is downplaying the risks.

  5. I'm surprised no one has thought of burning the methane off... since methane is a flammable gas after all.

    1. It has been suggested before, but sadly there is very little R&D into ways to remove methane from the atmosphere. For more, see also the Climate Plan blog

  6. What use is geo-engineering as long as, for instance, the Canadians continue to exploit tar sands. It would be insane, and use up vast amounts of energy, which will largely be produced from fossil fuels, to try to soak up Carbon dioxide without eliminating the sources. The key development is that it be made illegal for any person or company to contribute money in any way to an American politician. With the senators and congressmen out of the pockets of the rich and powerful, there is just a chance they could start to work for the American people. Quite to the contrary of what many think, the conversion to renewables, electric cars, smart grids, demand balancing and so forth would usher in a financial boom in America. The rest of the world would follow like the sheep we are.

    1. Yes, William, several lines of action need to be implemented in parallel, as pictured in the bottom image of the post and as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.