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Scientists Defending Against The Methane Bomb

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Most of the worry over greenhouse gases centers on carbon dioxide, and rightly so: thanks mostly to the burning of fossil fuels, levels of this heat-trapping pollutant have soared to nearly 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, far above the 270 ppm that prevailed before 1800 or so, and they’re still rising — triggering a rise in sea level, temperature, and other telltale signs of climate change.

But CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas: methane traps heat too, and it’s a lot more powerful, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. The good news is that there’s much less methane up there than CO2. The bad news: global warming could release vast natural deposits of methane trapped in the Arctic, making the temperature increase we’re already seeing go into overdrive.

No one knows if and when that might happen, but even the mere possibility has galvanized scientists into pondering what they could possibly do about it should the worst come to pass — and a paper in Environmental Science & Technology is the latest and most comprehensive assault on the problem yet.

Methane-induced melt-hole on a frozen lake in the Brooks Range in Alaska. Credit: Katey Walter Anthony.

In a worst-case scenario, suggest Joshuah Stolaroff, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and his co-authors, with huge plumes of methane erupting into the atmosphere from underground, scientists might have to battle the gas with bombs, and more. “If the concentration of methane is high enough . . . ” they write, “. . . then a laser can be used as a remote ignition source.”

This worst-case scenario is by no means certain, but it’s certainly plausible. Scientists know that enormous reserves of methane — rivaling the world’s known reserves of fossil fuels — are buried in the permafrost and along the continental shelf surrounding the Arctic Ocean, trapped in ice formations known as methane hydrates. If the water warms enough, the gas could escape relatively quickly to add it’s planet-warming power to the greenhouse gases that are already there. This is probably what happened during a rapid warming episode known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, about 55 million years ago. The temperature shot up by about 11° F at the time, causing mass extinctions of species, among other effects.

No one knows how long it took for the methane to escape back then, nor how long it might take if it happened again. But if the release were relatively slow — an event stretching over 1,000 years or more — it would make global warming harder to deal with. A slow release would obviously be easier to deal with, Stolaroff said, especially if it emerged in concentrated pockets. “If it came out of particular hotspots,” he said, “like specific Arctic lakes, you could imagine deploying some technological solution at the site, which might involve flaring the gas, or collecting it for energy.”

On the other hand, if it came out uniformly over a large area — even slowly — the challenge would be a lot greater. “It’s hard to imagine putting a tarp down over millions of square kilometers,” Stolaroff said. One option might be to resort to geoengineering — abandoning the idea of suppressing the methane directly and choosing instead to reflect some of the sunlight reaching the Arctic back into space. “You could whiten the ocean by creating microbubbles,” he said, “or put particles into the atmosphere to shade the surface.” Or you might try and seed the atmosphere with some sort of methane-eating substance.

And if the release were sudden and widespread — the worst of the worst case? “I don't know what the response might look like, but it would be massive,” he said. Laser ignition is one possibility, and, write the authors, “incendiary ballistics” — that is, explosive-laden missiles — “may be another route.” Any possibility mentioned in the paper, said, Stolaroff, “is a possibility. Just on a much larger scale, and more rapid.”

A methane apocalypse isn’t the entire focus of the new paper, although it’s admittedly the most dramatic. But humans are putting the stuff into the atmosphere at a growing rate even without natural eruptions in the Arctic: methane comes out of rotting garbage in landfills, rotting manure in animal feedlots, food digesting in cows’ stomachs. It’s a waste gas that escapes from oil and natural gas wells and oil refineries — and that’s just a partial list.

In many of these situations, Stolaroff said, it’s easy enough to deal with the problem. “If the source is confined [a well or a landfill, for example], or if it can be confined [a cattle barn], you can simply burn it.”

Burning converts methane into CO2, but since methane is some 25 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, that’s a good thing. “Burning,” he said, “reduces the global-warming impact by 90 percent.”

The paper outlines strategies for dealing with unconfined methane sources as well. Ranchers can deal with methane-laden burps from grazing cattle through changes in feed; rice farmers can cut down on the methane bubbling up from rice paddies by draining them of water every so often. And the list goes on.

Stolaroff emphasized that the new study shouldn’t be taken as final or definitive. Just the opposite, in fact. “Our goal,” he said, “was to get people thinking about this. We wanted to lay out the options, then let each researcher figure out what aspect of the problem they might want to study. We believe that the consequences of a large-scale release are so dire that we need to start planning for it immediately.” 

Comments

By David Snällfot (Malmö)
on July 30th, 2012

It should say: Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum in the text above.

Reply to this comment

By Craig Dillon (Chicago, IL 60607)
on July 31st, 2012

1. Methane is 100 times more potent than CO2 as a GWG. The 25 times figure is the figure given for the impact of a release of methane over a period of 100 years. Since a given methane molecule will last only 12 years in the atmosphere, it calculates an impact over 100 years as 25 times that of a CO2 molecule. Problem with that calculation is that when the methane is being replaced in the atmosphere constantly to give a general rise in atmospheric methane, calculating its impact over 100 years is silly.  With that calculation the increase from 1800 of CH4 from .7 ppm to 1.80 ppm is equivalent to an increase of CO2 of 110 ppm. That is, the methane increase has a warming effect almost equal to the CO2 impact. 

2. The worse case scenario is not the PETM (paleo-eocene thermal maximum) but the great anoxic event that occurred between the Permian-Triassic boundary. At that time, a huge increase in atmospheric carbon caused a huge warming event AND caused the oceans to become anoxic below a depth of 30 ft or so. The Black Sea is an anoxic sea. This event helped kill off 95% of life on earth.  Now that is truly worse case. If we increase CO2 to 1000 ppm and raise CH4 to 5 or 6 ppm what can happen? 

3. People keep saying that Greenland will take 2000 or more years to melt, and that the EAIS is too cold to melt.  I don’t believe it. In 100 years, the Arctic Ocean could be ice free year round. Greenland’s melt season will then also be year round. Thunderstorms will appear over Greenland dumping huge amounts of calories on the ice, accelerating the melting. The oceans around Antarctica will warm melting the ice shelves, which will allow the ice to empty into the ocean.

4. Fracking has increased exponentially, and is becoming a prime source of energy for humanity. This activity has already caused methane to bubble up in Pennsylvania rivers. How can all the methane released from fractured rock be collected? It cannot. Much of that methane will find its way to the atmosphere, adding to the methane from permafrost and clathrates. It took 200 years for methane to increase by 1.1 ppm. Now we could be looking at huge increases of methane to 5 or 10 ppm. Are we having fun yet? 

5. The feedbacks will cause the melting to keep accelerating. If the oceans rise by 5 feet by 2100, we could expect double that rise by 2200, getting worse each succeeding century. 

6. Humans have a hard time looking ahead just to the next one or two generations. This process will take tens of generations. But it WILL happen. The genie is out of the bottle. The heat the oceans have absorbed already will operate over hundreds of years. Even if we were able to stop our inputs into the atmosphere, we cannot stop the natural ones we have unleashed. 

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By Brian Wind (Gilbertsville, NY, 13776)
on August 5th, 2012

I am an amatur scientist, with an interest in biology and earth science, and have been reading all i can on Global Warming since before Al Gore took up this issue.  I beleve we have about 3 to 5 years until earths climate becomes nearly unlivable. All scientific evidence points to this event, especially with the melting arctic and the high probability of methane hydrates melting and entering the atmosphere. This is happening now, and it is happening fast. And I believe it is too late for action. Humans have not evolved enough to work together in the face of massive catastophe.

Reply to this comment

By Larry Lawhorn (Flagler Beach)
on October 8th, 2012

..::“Ocean Acidification is now irreversible… at least on timescales of at least… TENS of THOUSANDS of years…

Even with stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm, Ocean Acidification will have profound impacts (death and extinction) on many marine systems.

LARGE and rapid reductions of global CO2 emissions are needed globally by at LEAST 50% by 2050.

Analysis of past events in Earth’s geologic history suggests that chemical recovery (normal pH for LIFE in the Ocean) will take TENS of THOUSANDS of years - while the recovery of ecosystem function and biological diversity (LIFE AS WE KNOW IT) can take much longer. (MILLIONS OF YEARS)

http://interacademies.net/10878/13951.aspx
—-

..:: “Every day, 70 MILLION TONS of CO2 are released into Earth’s atmosphere. ( remaining in the atmosphere for thousands of years )

..:: “Every day, 20 MILLION TONS of that CO2 are absorbed into the OCEANS, thereby increasing the overall ACIDITY of the OCEANS.

By 2100, Ocean acidity will increase another 150 to 200 hundred percent.

This is a dramatic change in the acidity of the oceans. And it has a serious impact on our ocean ecosystems; in particular, it has an impact on any species of calcifying organism that produces a calcium carbonate SHELL.
-
http://www.ClimateWatch.NOAA.gov/video/2010/origin-impacts-ocean-acidification

—-

..:: “These are changes that are occurring far too fast for the oceans to correct naturally, said Dr Richard Feely with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

..:: “Fifty-five million years ago when we had an event like this (and that took over 10,000 years to occur), it took the oceans over 125,000 years to recover, just to get the chemistry back to normal,” he told BBC News.

..:: “It took two to 10 million years for the organisms to re-evolve, to get back into a normal situation.

..:: “So what we do over the next 100 years will have implications for ocean ecosystems from tens of thousands to millions of years. That’s the implication of what we’re doing to the oceans right now.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17088154

-
http://ecodelmar.org/phytoplankton
-

Reply to this comment

By William Hughes-Games (Waipara New Zealand 7447)
on April 25th, 2013

Methane is only 25 times as strong a green house gas if it is entering the atmosphere at a steady rate over the decades.  if it’s production accelerates, it becomes more than 100 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
http://mtkass.blogspot.co.nz/2013/03/the-real-strength-of-methane.html

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By MAX WEDGES (DENMAN ISLAND, BC, CA)
on June 18th, 2013

“Boiled Frog” Syndrome?

I make wine.
In the great scheme of things, we ‘humans’ are about as ‘intelligent’  as the Yeasts I use:

They too keep multiplying and devouring sugar to make alcohol until the alcohol they produce kills them. 
They also see what they do in terms of G.D.P., and Economic Growth, heading no warnings.

(On the positive side I am unlikely to see 2035, when the usual 120 year cycle of World Wars returns
(1914 + 120….), in time to join Climate Catastrophe.  But that is no consolation for my grand-children)

So far, I am laughing:  the grapes are in bloom… the earliest I have seen in many years.
Would hate to be here for the ‘crying time’.

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