A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov.
The research results, published in the March 5 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.
"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans," said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap."
Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is released from previously frozen soils in two ways. When the organic material – which contains carbon – stored in permafrost thaws, it begins to decompose and, under oxygen-free conditions, gradually release methane. Methane can also be stored in the seabed as methane gas or methane hydrates and then released as subsea permafrost thaws. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition.
Comment by: Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Apr-3-2010) Web site
How I managed it I know not, but I had forgotten about you, Auntie, when I made my glib statement. Under the term 'pessimism' I had in mind the scientifically strong prediction of six degrees Celsius this century, which is far more pessimistic than almost any politician or media figure, or the average man in the street. Six degrees may be an underestimate.
Personally, I don't put myself with the optimists. The scientific details can be confusing, but the general current of them is for a lot of warming and instability. Can we stop it? I don't know, but I think we ought to try. Even if we simply slow it it may mean a few more years of life for the children at our feet.
My gloomy prediction is that we won't know how much the earth warms this century as we will die out before then. In the next three decades, probably, a war for resources - oil, water, agricultural land - will be fought between nuclear powers, and that'll be it for us.
My slim hope is that the head of Boeing, currently developing airliners for the 2030s, and our political leaders, doing almost nothing to combat climate change, may know better than me. It's a very slim hope.
Comment by: PT (David Alexander) (Apr-1-2010) Web site
Yes, I am also concerned with "The Venus Effect". What I have learned from reading over the last few years is the severity of a temperature change of just one or two degrees. With the significant possibility of returning to the temperatures of the Permian Extinction, we are talking about extinction of the great majority of current life on Earth, even most insects.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Mar-31-2010)
"If the story is true - and who am I to doubt the scientists - then global warming this century could be a lot more rapid and pronounced than even the pessimists have been predicting." Sorry, Bill, but I've been reading as much about the climate change stuff as anyone, and my comments to people have been "Think VENUS", not "Greenhouse" for quite some time now. Pessimism is much more powerful than you optmists can imagine. Come over to the dark side for a while. It's quite warm and comfy. You must have a certain "moral flexibility", though. It also puts all of the talk about "marketing green" into a different perspective, when you think about how much money is dependent upon perpetual global growth, rather than usefulness. Many will start thinking now about going "off-planet", but it's way too late. We can't get along with the living things that share most of our DNA; how do they think we are going to get along with things that share none of it?
Comment by: PT (David Alexander) (Mar-19-2010) Web site
Thanks for reading so carefully that you even notice the optimism rank (with "1" as the least optimistic or most pessimistic)! You know, when looked at with a scientific eye, this kind of news does not need to "guarantee" a catastrophe. If the chance of a disastrous 19F (11C) temperature rise, as in the Permian Extinction, is merely, say, 25%, then should we as a planet not drop nearly everything else and work our damnedest to avoid that result? Unfortunately, the severity of the consequences and the risk analysis does not reach inside the minds of those preoccupied with things like selling product or getting re-elected. I don't mean to be overly cynical about business or government -- normally these are good things overall despite their unavoidable defects, and despite the aberration that is the current immoral global corporate entity.
But most people engaged in those activities as their daily way of life, are not capable of absorbing the potential severity of the upcoming climate change.
Comment by: Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Mar-18-2010) Web site
It strikes me that David was right to rate this news '1' on the optimism scale. If the story is true - and who am I to doubt the scientists - then global warming this century could be a lot more rapid and pronounced than even the pessimists have been predicting.
Perhaps for every ton of CO2 equivalent we emit, several more tons are released by feedback of this type. We're in a fast car heading for a brick wall. And now we've noticed the brick wall is coming our way. And so far the best we've been able to do is ease off on the accelerator.
I lived in Britain for many years, where I studied politics and international relations and worked in the charity sector. Now I live in Mexico and juggle my time between bringing up a young son, writing science fiction, teaching English and engaging with the global community on-line. I want to learn more about the enormous changes we all face so we might make a peaceful transition to what is bound to be a very different society.