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Arctic methane: time bomb or “boogeyman”?


Scientist Laura Brosius collects methane from Eight Mile Lake using an "umbrella trap".

Laura Brosius collects methane from Eight Mile Lake using an “umbrella trap” (Pic: I.Quaile, 2008)

When the Ice Blog was launched in 2008, one of the first posts from a trip to Alaska entitled “Ice-Capades and Alaska baking with methane?” included a visit to frozen-over “Eight-mile Lake” in the Denali national park, where scientists Katey Walter and Laura Brosius were measuring methane emissions from melting ice and permafrost. The young “climate ambassadors” I was travelling with helped her to set up “umbrella traps” and capture bubbles of methane coming to the surface. The “proof of the pudding” was setting a match to the gas and watching it catch light. An interesting experiment.  But the subject has huge wide-ranging implications.  Methane is also a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Walter and others have since recorded numerous methane seeps in Alaska and Greenland. As global temperatures increase, the permafrost thaws, potentially releasing the gas stored both in the permafrost on land and in the form of methane hydrates under water.

Since that Alaskan trip, methane has beconme an increasingly “hot topic”,  with more research being conducted and data collected. The reservoir of methane stored under the Arctic ice and permafrost is huge.  And there is increasing scientific evidence that with the world warming, this reservoir is not going to stay there for ever. The concentration of atmospheric methane has increased dramatically in the last 200 years – especially in the Arctic. In 2008, scientists came up with a scenario where up to 50 gigatonnes of methane could be released abruptly from the East Siberia Arctic Shelf (ESAS) because of the melting of permafrost which had hitherto kept it safely sealed in.

You can see the methane bubbles rising. (Pic I. Quaile)

You can see the methane bubbles rising. (Pic I. Quaile)

Fountains of methane

In 2011, a joint US-Russian expedition surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia was surprised to observe fountains of methane rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed. At that time, scientists expressed concern that with the melting of Arctic sea ice and permafrost, the huge methane stores might be released over a relatively short period of time.

The SWERUS-C3 expedition headed by Örjan Gustafsson from Stockholm University is currently underway in the Laptev Sea, where they have discovered “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor of the Laptev continental slope”. Gustavsson writes in his blog that he was surprised by this. He speculates that it could have its origins in collapsing “methane hydrates”, clusters of methane trapped in frozen water due to high pressure and low temperatures.

“While there has been much speculation about the vulnerability of regular marine hydrates along the continental slopes of the Arctic rim, very few actual observations of methane releases due to collapsing marine hydrates on the Arctic slope have been made”, Gustafsson writes.  He thinks a “tongue” of relatively warm Atlantic water, presumably intruding across the Arctic Ocean at 200-600 meters depth could have something to do with the methane seeps. Some evidence shows this water mass has recently become warmer.

“As this warm Atlantic water, the last remnants of the Gulf stream, propagates eastward along the upper slope of the East Siberian margin, it may lead to the destabilization of methane hydrates on the upper portion of the slope”, Gustafsson writes.

Costly bubbles

In 2013,  a paper published in the journal Nature put a price tag on the possibility of the Arctic’s methane being released. The experts suggest it could trigger costs of 60 trillion US dollars. Normally, as soon as money is involved, public interest tends to rise. The report should really have brought  the subject of “Arctic methane hydrates” out of the science corner onto the economic and political agenda. Which is, of course, where it has to be, if there is any chance of limiting the Arctic thaw by halting global warming.

There is a huge amount of methane captured under Arctic permafrost. (Pic I. Quaile)

Investigating the huge amount of methane captured under Arctic permafrost. (Pic I. Quaile)

There are scientists who insist that such a scenario is not likely. Let me refer you here to a detailed analysis of the scientific literature on the subject published by Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, in EarthInsight hosted by the Guardian, in 2013. He points out that none of the scientists  who reject the plausibility of the scenario are experts in the Arctic, and specifically the ESAS. On the other hand, there is an emerging consensus among ESAS specialists based on continuing fieldwork, he writes, “highlighting a real danger of unprecedented quantities of methane venting due to thawing permafrost”.

Rhetoric, polemics – but accuracy please!

Ahmed comes down on the side of the Arctic experts who are highly concerned about the risk of methane being set free in large quantities. That is already clear from the title of his article “Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane timebomb”. Sub-headed: “Dismissals of catastrophic methane danger ignore robust science in favour of outdated mythology of climate safety.” Yes, you could say that is tendentious. It is certainly rhetorically powerful.

Perhaps that accounts in part for the reaction I got when I tweeted the link to his analysis recently as interesting background to the ongoing debate on Arctic methane. One response told me to stop “fear mongering” and referred to an article describing methane as a “climate boogeyman”. (In connection with studies on methane leaks from natural gas production). Aha. Emotions are running high – on both sides.

Still – Ahmed’s article is based on a thorough analysis of both sides of the arguments. It seems this cannot be said of a piece on, headlined “Are Siberia’s methane blow-holes the first warning sign of unstoppable climate change?”. The article links three giant craters which have been found in Siberia to the scientific research of Jason Box, a renowned glaciology professor and Greenland expert, starting with the tantalizing question:

“What do three enormous craters in the Siberian wastelands have to do with a terrified American climate scientist? Methane. And that’s something to scare us all”.

In fact, as Jason Box @climate_ice tweeted to his followers, the Arctic expert’s research and concern have nothing to do with the giant craters. He tweets:

“News piece juxtaposes Siberian holes with my carbon release concerns but I have no idea about the holes”

Citing the concerns and findings of reputed scientists alongside other reported explanations of the Siberian craters as “hellmouths”, “gateways to the undead” or “aliens” does nothing for serious scientific attempts to monitor climate change in the Arctic or inform politicians and businesses about the scenarios for which the world has to prepare. Now if those of a skeptical persuasion were to take this kind of article as “fear mongering” or the “climate boogeyman”, I could just about understand it. Please, let us not detract from the value of scientific monitoring and analysis, complex computer modeling and genuine concern on the part of a lot of experts who know very well what they are talking about. And let us not bring the media into disrepute for misrepresenting the views of scientists like Jason Box by taking his findings and statements out of context in the interest of a sensationalist story. We do not need to mix fact with fiction and create “boogeymen”. The huge body of scientific findings out there is already scary enough.


August 7, 2014 | 9:43 am



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“On Thin Ice” at Warsaw climate talks

Walking on thin ice, Chukchi Sea, Alaska, 2008 (Pic: I Quaile)

Did you know it was the “Day of the Cryosphere” at the Warsaw climate talks COP 19 in Warsaw yesterday? If not, you might be forgiven. I haven’t seen it making the headlines in the mainstream media. That is a pity, given that what climate change is doing to our ice, snow and permafrost has repercussions for the whole planet.


November 18, 2013 | 3:35 pm



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Melting permafrost eroding Siberian coasts

Rising summer temperatures and dwindling Arctic sea ice are eroding the cliffs of Eastern Siberia at an increasing pace. Scientists from AWI, the German Alfred Wegener Institute and the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research have been evaluating data and aerial photographs of the coastal regions from the last 40 years. As the sea ice recedes more and more from year to year, the cliffs are being undermined by waves. At the same time, the land surface is beginning to sink.

This graphic, courtesy of AWI, shows the interaction between permafrost melt, wave action and coastal erosion

Disappearing island

The research documents warming summers. While the temperatures during the period looked at were higher than zero degrees Celsius on an average of 110 days per year, the scientists counted a total of 127 days in the years 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the number of days with temperatures above freezing increased to 134.The number of summer days on which the sea ice in the southern Laptew Sea vanishes completely is also on the increase. “During the past two decades, there were, on average, fewer than 80 ice-free days in this region per year. During the past three years, however, we counted 96 ice-free days on average. Thus, the waves can nibble at the permafrost coasts for approximately two more weeks each year,“ says AWI permafrost researcher Paul Overduin.

Coastal erosion has caused considerable damage in Arctic areas, including Point Barrow

Not only a problem in Siberia

Sea ice plays an important role in protecting coasts from waves. When this barrier is not there, the waves dig deep and erode land away. I saw the results of this first-hand during a trip to Barrow, Alaska, in 2008. I visited sites at Point Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States, where villages had been washed into the sea. On a trip to Greenland in 2009, I was amazed to see buildings being artificially cooled to avoid them sinking into the ground as warming temperatures melt the permafrost.

System to cool the foundations of a building in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

In the area of Siberia investigated by the German scientists, high cliffs protect the coastline. As the permafrost melts above and waves cut in from below, the cliffs are undermined and break off.

The erosion does not only have an impact on land. It also washes material into the sea, changing the quality of the water. Depending on the kind of erosion and the particular structure of the coast, between 88 and 800 tons of plant-, animal, and microorganism-based carbon are currently washed into the sea per year and kilometer of coastline – materials which were previously sealed in the permafrost, according to the AWI researchers. Once in the water, carbon may turn into carbon dioxide and, as a result, contribute to the acidification of the oceans.

The studies were conducted as part of the PROGRESS project which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. PROGRESS is the acronym for Potsdamer Forschungs- und Technologieverbund für Naturgefahren, Klimawandel und Nachhaltigkeit (Potsdam Research Cluster for Georisk Analysis, Environmental Change and Sustainability).


October 31, 2013 | 1:46 pm



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Biodiversity Day: The Arctic

Svalbard reindeer, Ny Alesund


May 22 is the UN official “International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB)”. Yes,  I know, I frequently wonder about the value of these “International Day of…” whatever, but usually come to the conclusion that it’s always good to have reminders or pegs to draw attention to issues that don’t always make the headlines (last time on Migratory Bird day, see Ice Blog post). May 22 was chosen because it was the day, in 1992, when the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in Nairobi.

Anyway, at least in our northern hemisphere, May is a good time to talk about biodiversity, as nature bursts into life (or creeps out gently with the temperatures in my part of Europe currently a little on the chilly side) after the winter rest. Like so many things in our world, this is also affected by climate change, with increasing variability in temperature and conditions having an impact on the seasons.

This May also sees the publication of the “Arctic Biodiversity Assessment“. It was released at the meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna on May 15th. Let me quote a little from the intro, which sums up why Arctic biodiversity is so special:

“The Arctic holds some of the most extreme habitats on Earth, with species and peoples that have adapted through biological and cultural evolution to its unique conditions. A homeland to some, and a harsh if not hostile environment to others, the Arctic is home to iconic animals such as polar bears Ursus maritimus, narwhals Monodon monoceros, caribou/reindeer Rangifer tarandus, muskoxen Ovibos moschatus, Arctic fox Alopex lagopus, ivory gull Pagophila eburnea and snowy owls Bubo scandiaca, as well as numerous microbes and invertebrates capable of living in extreme cold, and large intact landscapes and seascapes with little or no obvious sign of direct degradation from human activity. In addition to flora and fauna, the Arctic is known for the knowledge and ingenuity of Arctic peoples, who thanks to great adaptability have thrived amid ice, snow and winter darkness… The Arctic is made up of the world’s smallest ocean surrounded by a relatively narrow fringe of island and continental tundra. Extreme seasonality and permafrost, together with an abundance of freshwater habitats ranging from shallow tundra ponds fed by small streams to large deep lakes and rivers, determine the hydrology, biodiversity and general features of the Arctic’s terrestrial ecosystems. Seasonal and permanent sea ice are the defining features of the Arctic’s marine ecosystems.”

Biodiversity loss is happening at a frightening rate all over the globe, and the Arctic is no exception. On the contrary, with the climate there warming so much faster than the global average, Arctic biodiversity is under terrific pressure. As a contribution to halting the loss of biodiversity, the Arctic Council initiated the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, consulting scientists on what could be done to alleviate pressures on Arctic biodiversity. The report gives an overview of  the stress factors putting Arctic biodiversity and suggests  possible actions to enhance biodiversity conservation.

The authors stress that there are substantial gaps in our knowledge of Arctic biodiversity. There is a huge need for continuing research.

Climate change is clearly a major problem. Melting ice, melting permafrost, warmer ocean – clearly such changes to some of the defining factors influence living conditions for flora and fauna too. With warming paradoxically making it easier to indulge in activities in the far north which could exacerbate climate change even further, the situation is complex and the time pressure huge.

Reports of this kind are usually very hard to read. I must commend the authors for the online presentation of this one. It’s divided into readable chapters and has some spectacular pictures. Some were taken by Lars Holst Hansen at Zackenberg, Greenland. I met and interviewed Lars at Zackenberg Station in north-eastern Greenland in 2009. The radio feature I made at that time is still very relevant and describes work at the remote research station, which monitors a wide range of environmental parameters, including of course, lots of biodiversity.

LISTEN: Changing Arctic, Changing World: Greenland’s Changing Climate.

I went counting musk oxen with Lars while I was at the station. One of his photos of the “big hairy beasties” is actually being used on a stamp incidentally. Congratulations Lars for the brilliant picture and for this contribution to spreading the word about the need to protect the fragile Arctic environment and its biodiversity.





May 22, 2013 | 1:36 pm



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A greener Arctic in a warming climate

Students collecting samples on the Alaskan tundra.

A new study of thirty years of satellite data shows considerable changes to the Arctic tundra. The difference between the seasons is diminishing, resulting in increasing plant growth and a less clear distinction between North and South. Vegetation is moving northwards as climatic conditions shift.

The study, conducted by an international team of 21 researchers from 17 institutions in 7 countries and funded by NASA is published in Nature Climate Change. Professor Bruce Forbes from the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, one of the authors, says  indigenous reindeer nomads in northern Russia are already experiencing increases in the height of deciduous shrubs.

Although conditions differ in different parts of the region, overall the growing season is beginning earlier and the autumn freeze starting later.

Climate News Network quotes Professor Forbes as saying “we are seeing more frequent and longer-lasting high pressure systems. In winter, the snow cover comes later, is deeper on average than in the 1960s, but is melting out earlier in spring”.  Forbes and his research team used dendrochronology, the science of tree-ring measurement to confirm the findings.

“In a few decades, if the current trends continue, much more of the existing low shrub tundra will start to resemble woodlands as the shrubs become tree-sized”, says Forbes.

The warming will change ecoystems considerably and also result in “feedback” effects. Melting permafrost means peat and vegetation will decompose, releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Let me close with “food for thought” from Tim Radford, the author of the Climate News Network report on the study:

“Climate is a complicated business, and there is always legitimate room for argument about the validity of one selected set of measurements, a potential bias in the observations, or the reliability of comparison data collected two generations earlier. But vegetables can’t be fooled. Plants grow where they can. If deciduous shrubs are growing taller, and colonizing sites ever further north, then conditions must be getting warmer, and staying warmer.”

It’s hard to argue with that.



March 11, 2013 | 4:00 pm



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