Sunday, May 30, 2021

Methane and the mass extinction of species

by Andrew Glikson

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Noam Chomsky (1998).

The level of atmospheric methane, a poisonous gas considered responsible for major mass extinction events in the past, has nearly tripled during the 20-21st centuries, from ~722 ppb (parts per billion) to above ~1866 ppb, currently reinforced by coal seam gas (CSG) emissions. As the concentration of atmospheric methane from thawing Arctic permafrost, from Arctic sediments and from marshlands worldwide is rising, the hydrocarbon industry, subsidized by governments, is progressively enhancing global warming by extracting coal seam gas in defiance of every international agreement.

Methane (CH₄), a powerful greenhouse gas ~80 times the radiative power of carbon dioxide (CO₂) when fresh, sourced in from anaerobic decomposition in wetlands, rice fields, emission from animals, fermentation, animal waste, biomass burning, charcoal combustion and anaerobic decomposition of organic waste, is enriched by melting of leaking permafrost, leaks from sediments of the continental shelf (Figure 1) and extraction as coal seam gas (CSG). The addition to the atmosphere of even a part of the estimated 1,400 billion tons of carbon (GtC) from Arctic permafrost would destine the Earth to temperatures higher than 4 degrees Celsius and thereby demise of the biosphere life support systems.

During the last and present centuries, global methane concentrations have risen from approximately ~700 parts per billion (ppb) to near-1900 ppb, an increase by a factor of ~2.7, the highest rate in the last 800,000 years.

Since the onset of the Industrial age global emissions of carbon have reached near-600 billion tonnes of carbon (>2100 billion tonnes CO₂) at a rate faster than during the demise of dinosaurs. According to research published in Nature Geoscience, CO₂ is being added to the atmosphere at least ten times faster than during a major warming event about 55 million years ago.

Australia, possessing an abundance of natural gas, namely methane resources, is on track to become the world's largest exporter. Leaks from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) production wells, transport and residues of combustion are bound to contribute significantly to atmospheric methane. However, despite economic objections, not to mention accelerating global warming, natural gas from coal seam gas, liquefied to -161°C, is favored by the government for domestic use as well as exported around the world.

In the Hunter Valley, NSW, release of methane from open-cut coal mining reached above 3000 ppb. In the US methane released in some coal seam gas fields constitutes between 2 and 17 per cent of the emissions.

While natural gas typically emits between 50 and 60 percent less CO₂ than coal when burned, the drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells, fugitive emissions, leaks from transportation in pipelines result in enrichment of the atmosphere in methane, the main component of natural gas, 34 times stronger than CO₂ at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years. So, while natural gas when burned emits less CO₂ than coal, that doesn’t mean that it’s clean – the reason summed up in one word: methane.

Global warming triggered by the massive release of CO₂ may be catastrophic, but release of CH₄ from methane hydrates may be apocalyptic. According to Brand et al. (2016), the release of methane from permafrost and shelf sediment has constituted the ultimate source and cause for the dramatic life-changing global warming. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian 251 million years ago, when 96 percent of species was lost, holds an important lesson for humanity regarding greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and the life support system of the planet (Brand et al. 2016, Methane Hydrate: Killer cause of Earth's greatest mass extinction).

The pledge for zero-emissions by 2050 is questioned as governments continue to subsidize, mine and export hydrocarbons. Examples include Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf States, Russia, Norway and Australia. A mostly compliant media highlights a zero-emission pledge, but is reluctant to report the scale of exported emissions as well as the ultimate consequences of the open-ended rise of global temperatures.

Norway, a country committed to domestic clean energy, is conducting large scale drilling for Atlantic and Arctic oil. Australia, the fourth-largest producer of coal, with 6.9% of global production, is the biggest net exporter, with 32% of global exports in 2016. 23 new coal projects are proposed n the Hunter Valley, NSW, with a production capacity equivalent to 15 Adani-sized mines.

Australian electricity generation is dominated by fossil fuel and about 17% renewable energy. Fossil fuel subsidies hit $10.3 billion in 2020-21, about twice the investment in solar energy in 2019-2020. State Governments spent $1.2 billion subsidizing exploration, refurbishing coal ports, railways and power stations and funding “clean coal” research, ignoring the pledge for “zero emissions by 2050”.

The pledge overlooks the global amplifying effects of cumulative greenhouse gases. At the current rate of emissions, atmospheric CO₂ levels would be near 500 ppm CO₂ by 2050, generating warming of the oceans (expelling CO₂), decreased albedo due to melting of ice, release of methane, desiccated vegetation and extensive fires.

Claims of “clean coal”, “clean gas” and “clean hydrogen” ignore the contribution of these methods to the rise in greenhouse gases. Coal seam gas has become an additional source of methane which has an 80 times more powerful greenhouse effect than CO₂. This adds to the methane leaked from Arctic permafrost, with atmospheric methane rising from ~ 600 parts per billion early last century to higher than 2000 ppb. In the Hunter Valley, NSW, release of methane from open-cut coal mining reached above 3000 ppb. In the US, methane released in some coal seam gas fields constitutes between 2 and 17 per cent of the emissions.

The critical index of global warming, rarely mentioned by politicians or the media, is the atmospheric concentration of CO₂. During 2020-2021 CO₂ rose from 416.45 to 419.05 parts per million at a rate of 2.6 ppm/year, a trend unprecedented in the geological record of the last 55 million years. The combined effects of greenhouse gases such as cabon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide (N₂O) have reached near ~500 ppm CO2-equivalent.

Since 1880, the world has warmed by 1.09 degrees Celsius on average, near ~1.5°C on the continents and ~2.2°C in the Arctic, with the five warmest years on record during 2015-2020. Since the 1980s, the wildfire season has lengthened across a quarter of the world's vegetated surface. As extensive parts of Earth are burning, “forever wars” keep looming. 

It is not clear how tracking toward +4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century can be arrested. A level of +4°C above pre-industrial temperature endangers the very life support systems of the planet. The geological record indicates past global heating events on a scale and rate analogous to the present have led to mass extinctions of species. According to Professor Will Steffen, Australia’s top climate scientist “we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse”. While many scientists are discouraged by the extreme rate of global heating, it is left to a heroic young girl to warn the world of the greatest calamity since a large asteroid impacted Earth some 66 million years ago.

Andrew Glikson
A/Prof. Andrew Glikson

Earth and Paleo-climate scientist
The University of New South Wales,
Kensington NSW 2052 Australia

The Asteroid Impact Connection of Planetary Evolution
The Archaean: Geological and Geochemical Windows into the Early Earth
Climate, Fire and Human Evolution: The Deep Time Dimensions of the Anthropocene
The Plutocene: Blueprints for a Post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth
Evolution of the Atmosphere, Fire and the Anthropocene Climate Event Horizon
From Stars to Brains: Milestones in the Planetary Evolution of Life and Intelligence
Asteroids Impacts, Crustal Evolution and Related Mineral Systems with Special Reference to Australia
The Event Horizon: Homo Prometheus and the Climate Catastrophe

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Arctic Ocean invaded by hot, salty water

Sea surface temperatures on the Northern Hemisphere have been rising dramatically over the years, as illustrated by above image, indicating that the latent heat tipping point is getting crossed, while the methane hydrates tipping point could get crossed soon, depending on developments.

At the moment, the surface temperature of most of the Arctic ocean's is still below 0°C.

Heat is entering the Arctic Ocean from the south, as illustrated by the image on the right. Hot, salty water is entering the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean as currents dive underneath the ice, causing the ice to melt from below. 
[ click on images to enlarge ]

The image on the right, from the NSIDC article A step in our Spring, compares sea ice age between March 12 to 18 for the years 1985 (a) and 2021 (b).

The bottom graph (c) shows a time series from 1985 to 2021 of percent ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean domain. The Arctic Ocean domain is depicted in the inset map with purple shading.

At the end of the ice growth season in mid-March, 73.3% of the Arctic Ocean domain was covered by first-year ice, while 3.5% was covered by ice 4+ years old. 

This compares to 70.6% and 4.4% respectively in March 2020.

In March 1985, near the beginning of the ice age record, the Arctic Ocean region was comprised of nearly equal amounts of first-year ice (39.3%) and 4+ year-old ice (30.6%).

Sea ice that hasn't yet survived a summer melt season is referred to as first-year ice. This thin, new ice is vulnerable to melt and disintegration in stormy conditions. Ice that survives a summer melt season can grow thicker and less salty, since snow that thickens the ice contains little salt. Thickness and salt content determine the resistance of the ice to melt. Multiyear ice is more likely to survive temperatures that would melt first-year ice, and to survive waves and winds that would break up first-year ice.

The image on the right shows a forecast of the thickness of the sea ice, run on May 20, 2021 and valid for May 21, 2021. 

An area is visible north of Severnaya Zemlya toward the North Pole where thickness is getting very thin, while there is one spot where the ice has virtually disappeared. 

The spot is likely a melting iceberg, the animation on the right shows that the spot has been there for quite a few days, while the freshwater in this spot appears to result from melting amid salty water. 

Overall, sea ice is getting very thin, indicating that the buffer constituted by the sea ice underneath the surface is almost gone, meaning that further heat entering the Arctic Ocean will strongly heat up the water. 

As the animation underneath on the right shows, freshwater is entering the Arctic Ocean due to runoff from land, i.e. rainwater from rivers, meltwater from glaciers and groundwater runoff from thawing permafrost. 

At the same time, very salty water is entering the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean. 

The map below shows how salty and hot water from the Atlantic Ocean enters the Arctic Ocean along two currents, flowing on each side of Svalbard, and meeting at this area north of Severnaya Zemlya where thickness is getting very low. 

The blue color on the map indicates depth (see scale underneath). 

The image below, by Malcolm Light and based on Max & Lowrie (1993), from a recent post, shows vulnerable Arctic Ocean slope and deep water methane hydrates zones below 300 m depth. 

Malcolm Light indicates three areas: 
Area 1. Methane hydrates on the slope;
Area 2. Methane hydrates on the abyssal plane; 
Area 3. Methane hydrates associated with the spreading Gakkel Ridge hydro-thermal activity (the Gakkel Riidge runs in between the northern tip of Greenland and the Laptev Sea). 

The freezing point of freshwater is 0°C or 32°F. For salty water, the freezing point is -2°C or 28.4°F.

During April 2021, sea ice was about 160 cm thick.

In June and July 2021, thickness will fall rapidly, as illustrated by the image on the right by Nico Sun. 

Sea ice acts as a buffer, by consuming energy in the process of melting, thus avoiding that this energy causes a temperature rise of the water. 

As long as there is sea ice in the water, this sea ice will keep absorbing heat as it melts, so the temperature will not rise at the sea surface and remain at zero°C. The amount of energy that is consumed in the process of melting the ice is as much as it takes to heat an equivalent mass of water from zero°C to 80°C.

The accumulated ice melt energy until now is the highest on record, as illustrated by the image on the right, by Nico Sun.

The image below further illustrate the danger. As the temperature of the water keeps rising, more heat will reach sediments at the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean that contain vast amounts of methane, as discussed at this page and in this post.

Ominously, methane levels reached a peak of 2901 ppb at 469 mb on May 13, 2021. 


In the extract of a 2008 paper, Natalia Shakhova et al. conclude: ". . we consider release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage as highly possible for abrupt release at any time."

The video below contains excerpts from Nick Breeze's interview with Natalia Shakhova at the European Geophysical Union in Vienna, 2012, on the likelihood and timeframe of a large methane release from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean. 

Natalia Shakhova: "The total amount of methane in the atmosphere is about 5Gt. The amount of carbon in the form of methane in this Arctic shelf is - approximately - from hundreds to thousands Gt and, of course, only 1% of [such an] amount is required to double the atmospheric burden of methane."

"But to destabilize 1% of this carbon pool, I think, not much effort is needed, considering the state of the permafrost and the amount of methane involved, because what divides the methane from the atmosphere is a very shallow water column and the weakening permafrost, which is losing its ability to seal, to serve as a seal, and this is, I think, not a matter of thousands of years, it's a matter of decades, at most hundred years." 

(Natalia talks with Igor Semiletov)
Natalia Shakhova: "Just because this area is seismically and tectonically active, and there was some investigation that the tectonic activity was increasing, and the seismic activity, the destabiliation of the ground, just mechanical forcing destabiliation [may suffice to act as] additional pathway for this methane to escape. There are many factors that are very convincing for us [to conclude] that it might happen."

Elaborating on the timeframe.
Natalia Shakhova: "Not any time, any time sounds like it might happen today, it might happen tomorrow, the day after tomorrow . . " 
Igor Simelitov: "It might!"

The image below was created with content from a 2019 paper by Natalia Shakhova et al. It concludes that methane releases could potentially increase by 3-5 orders of magnitude, considering the sheer amount of methane preserved within the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf seabed deposits and the documented thawing rates of subsea permafrost reported recently.

In a 2021 paper by researchers from Europe, Russia and the U.S., results from field research are published showing that methane is getting released from locations deep below the submarine permafrost. Lead author, Julia Steinbach, from Stockholm University, says: “The permafrost is a closed lid over the seafloor that’s keeping everything in place. And now we have holes in this lid.” 

In the video below, Nick Breeze interviews Igor Semiletov on methane plumes detected during this 2020 field research over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS).

In the video below, Nick Breeze interviews Örjan Gustafsson on field research on methane in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS)

In the video below, Peter Wadhams analyses the threat of Arctic methane releases.

In the video below, Guy McPherson discusses the situation.

In conclusion, temperatures could rise dramatically soon. A 3°C will likely suffice for humans to go extinct, making it in many respects rather futile to speculate about what will happen in the longer term. On the other hand, the right thing to do is to help avoid the worst things from happening, through comprehensive and effective action as described in the Climate Plan.


• NOAA Climate at a Glance

• Danish Meteorological Institute - Arctic temperature

• Freezing point of water - Climate Change: Arctic sea ice

• Arctic surface temperature

• NSIDC: A step in our Spring, image credit: T. Tschudi, University of Colorado, and W. Meier and J.S. Stewart, National Snow and Ice Data Center/Image by W. Meier

• Arctic sea ice - thickness and salinity -

• CryosphereComputing - by Nico Sun

• A 4.5 km resolution Arctic Ocean simulation with the global multi-resolution model FESOM 1.4 - by Qiang Wang et al. 

• Max, M.D. & Lowrie, A. 1993. Natural gas hydrates: Arctic and Nordic Sea potential. In: Vorren, T.O., Bergsager, E., Dahl-Stamnes, A., Holter, E., Johansen, B., Lie, E. & Lund, T.B. Arctic Geology and Petroleum Potential, Proceedings of the Norwegian Petroleum Society Conference, 15-17 August 1990, Tromso, Norway. Norwegian Petroleum Society (NPF), Special Publication 2 Elsevier, Amsterdam, 27-53.

• Extinction by 2027- by Malcolm Light

• Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates? - by Shakhova, Semiletov, Salyuk and Kosmach (2008)

• Understanding the Permafrost–Hydrate System and Associated Methane Releases in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf - by Natalia Shakhova, Igor Semiletov and Evgeny Chuvilin

• A Massive Methane Reservoir Is Lurking Beneath the Sea 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Extinction by 2027

by Malcolm Light

The greatest threat to humanity on Earth is the escalating Arctic atmospheric methane buildup, caused by the destabilization of subsea methane hydrates. This subsea Arctic methane hydrate destabilization will go out of control in 2024 and lead to a catastrophic heatwave by 2026.

While the source region for this subsea methane is in Russian waters, the hot ocean current setting them off is the northern extension of the Gulf Stream - North Atlantic Drift, the “Svalbard Current”, which makes United States and Canadian atmospheric pollution guilty of this looming catastrophic Global Extinction event.


Extinction by 2027 - Post by Malcolm Light and comments

Anomalies of methane in the atmosphere over the East Siberian shelf: Is there any sign of methane leakage from shallow shelf hydrates? - by Shakhova, Semiletov, Salyuk and Kosmach (2008)

Max, M.D. & Lowrie, A. 1993. Natural gas hydrates: Arctic and Nordic Sea potential. In: Vorren, T.O., Bergsager, E., Dahl-Stamnes, A., Holter, E., Johansen, B., Lie, E. & Lund, T.B. Arctic Geology and Petroleum Potential, Proceedings of the Norwegian Petroleum Society Conference, 15-17 August 1990, Tromso, Norway. Norwegian Petroleum Society (NPF), Special Publication 2 Elsevier, Amsterdam, 27-53.

Lucy-Alamo Projects - Hydroxyl Generation and Atmospheric Methane Destruction