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Arctic Methane On The Move?

By Real Climate

06 March, 2010
Real Climate

Methane is like the radical wing of the carbon cycle, in today’s atmosphere a stronger greenhouse gas per molecule than CO2, and an atmospheric concentration that can change more quickly than CO2 can. There has been a lot of press coverage of a new paper in Science this week called “Extensive methane venting to the atmosphere from sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf”, which comes on the heels of a handful of interrelated methane papers in the last year or so. Is now the time to get frightened?

No. CO2 is plenty to be frightened of, while methane is frosting on the cake. Imagine you are in a Toyota on the highway at 70 miles per hour approaching stopped traffic, and you find that the brake pedal is broken. This is CO2. Then you figure out that the accelerator has also jammed, so that by the time you hit the truck in front of you, you will be going 80 miles per hour instead of 70. This is methane. Is now the time to get worried? No, you should already have been worried by the broken brake pedal. Methane sells newspapers, but it’s not the big story, nor does it look to be a game changer to the big story, which is CO2.

For some background on methane hydrates we can refer you here. This weeks’ Science paper is by Shakhova et al, a follow on to a 2005 GRL paper. The observation in 2005 was elevated concentrations of methane in ocean waters on the Siberian shelf, presumably driven by outgassing from the sediments and driving excess methane to the atmosphere. The new paper adds observations of methane spikes in the air over the water, confirming the methane’s escape from the water column, instead of it being trapped by fresh water and oxidized to CO2 in the water, for example. The new data enable the methane flux from this region to the atmosphere to be quantified, and they find that this region rivals the methane flux from the whole rest of the ocean.

What’s missing from these studies themselves is evidence that the Siberian shelf degassing is new, a climate feedback, rather than simply nature-as-usual, driven by the retreat of submerged permafrost left over from the last ice age. However, other recent papers speak to this question.

Westbrook et al 2009, published stunning sonar images of bubble plumes rising from sediments off Spitzbergen, Norway. The bubbles are rising from a line on the sea floor that corresponds to the boundary of methane hydrate stability, a boundary that would retreat in a warming water column. A modeling study by Reagan and Moridis 2009 supports the idea that the observed bubbles could be in response to observed warming of the water column driven by anthropogenic warming.

Another recent paper, from Dlugokencky et al. 2009, describes an uptick in the methane concentration in the air in 2007, and tries to figure out where it’s coming from. The atmospheric methane concentration rose from the preanthropogenic until about the year 1993, at which point it rather abruptly plateaued. Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, so it ought to plateau if the emission flux is steady, but the shape of the concentration curve suggested some sudden decrease in the emission rate, stemming from the collapse of economic activity in the former Soviet bloc, or by drying of wetlands, or any of several other proposed and unresolved explanations. (Maybe the legislature in South Dakota should pass a law that methane is driven by astrology!) A previous uptick in the methane concentration in 1998 could be explained in terms of the effect of el Nino on wetlands, but the uptick in 2007 is not so simple to explain. The concentration held steady in 2008, meaning at least that interannual variability is important in the methane cycle, and making it hard to say if the long-term average emission rate is rising in a way that would be consistent with a new carbon feedback.

Anyway, so far it is at most a very small feedback. The Siberian Margin might rival the whole rest of the world ocean as a methane source, but the ocean source overall is much smaller than the land source. Most of the methane in the atmosphere comes from wetlands, natural and artificial associated with rice agriculture. The ocean is small potatoes, and there is enough uncertainty in the methane budget to accommodate adjustments in the sources without too much overturning of apple carts.

Could this be the first modest sprout of what will grow into a huge carbon feedback in the future? It is possible, but two things should be kept in mind. One is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane in particular. Methane is a transient gas in the atmosphere, while CO2 essentially accumulates in the atmosphere / ocean carbon cycle, so in the end the climate forcing from the accumulating CO2 that methane oxidizes into may be as important as the transient concentration of methane itself. The other thing to remember is that there’s no reason to fixate on methane hydrates in particular, as opposed to the carbon stored in peats in Arctic permafrosts for example. Peats take time to degrade but hydrate also takes time to melt, limited by heat transport. They don’t generally explode instantaneously.

For methane to be a game-changer in the future of Earth’s climate, it would have to degas to the atmosphere catastrophically, on a time scale that is faster than the decadal lifetime of methane in the air. So far no one has seen or proposed a mechanism to make that happen.

Dlugokencky et al., Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden. GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L18803, doi:10.1029/2009GL039780, 2009

Reagan, M. and G. Moridis, Large-scale simulation of methane hydrate dissociation along the West Spitsbergen Margin, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L23612, doi:10.1029/2009GL041332, 2009

Shakova et al., Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Science 237: 1246-1250, 2010

Shakova et al., The distribution of methane on the Siberian Arctic shelves: Implications for the marine methane cycle, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 32, L09601, doi:10.1029/2005GL022751, 2005

Westbrook, G., et al, Escape of methane gas from the seabed along the West Spitsbergen continental margin, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L15608, doi:10.1029/2009GL039191, 2009