Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is Global Warming breaking up the Integrity of the Permafrost?

Permafrost was long thought to act as a cap preventing methane from hydrates to enter the atmosphere. For many years, University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov studied methane emissions in the Arctic Ocean. In a 2010 press release, Shakhova said: "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. Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap."

Is something similar happening to the permafrost in Antarctica and on the Himilayan Plateau? As the image below shows (mid-May 2013 levels, image added later by Sam Carana), very high levels of methane can be present over Antarctica around this time of year.

The chart below shows very high methane levels over Antarctica in April and May 2013. High levels of methane over Antarctica were recorded before in 2013, as described in an earlier post at the methane-hydrates blog.

While above chart gives the peak readings at an altitude of 19,820 ft (or 6,041 m), the highest methane readings over Antarctica were not always recorded at that altitude. On April 29 and 30, 2013, when the above chart shows relatively low peak readings, readings of 2225 ppb were recorded at a lower altitude (14,385 ft or 4,384 m) over Antarctica. Similarly, the image below shows a reading of 2247 ppb on April 4, 2013, at that same lower altitude, higher than the peak reading for that day on above chart.

Are these high methane levels indications that global warming is breaking up the integrity of the permafrost in Antarctica as well?

The Himalayan Plateau, also known as the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, or the world’s “third pole”, is located in central Asia and also contains huge quantities of permafrost. Methane hydrates were discovered on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in September 2009 in quantities estimated "to equal at least 35 billion tonnes of oil", according to a 2010 Xinhuanet report.

The above chart with Antarctic daily peak methane readings gives an estimate for the highest methane reading over Antarctica on April 26, 2013. This because Antarctica didn’t appear to have the highest reading on that day, when methane readings were recorded of 2405 ppb at 469 mb pressure and of 2475 ppb at 367 mb pressure. The methane that caused these readings appears to originate from the Himalayan Plateau, as illustrated by the image below.

What could have caused such extremely high methane emissions?

Could the methane have been released from wetlands? It was very hot around that time in South Asia, as illustrated by the image below showing temperatures in degrees Celsius for April 28, 2013. But the emissions appear to originate from an area with little vegetation, which also appears to rule out burning of biomass waste from rice productions as a cause.

Another explanation for such high methane readings is that they were caused by earthquakes. The image below shows a string of earthquakes that hit China, including a magnitude 6.6 quake on April 20, 2013, and a magnitude 5.3 quake on April 24, 2013.

It could be that the earthquakes lead to large methane releases from ruptured natural gas pipes and tanks. On the other hand, the methane releases appear to occur over a large area well next to the epicenter of the earthquakes, as shown on the animation below.

Also, methane releases associated with such a natural disaster would have been a one-off event. High methane levels did occur before over the Himalayan Plateau, as illustrated by the image below showing readings for several days in 2013 at the same altitude, including a reading of 2235 ppb on February 1, 2013.

Such recurring high readings could indicate that methane is bubbling up through the permafrost at the Himalayan Plateau. Shockwaves caused by the earthquakes could have accelerated the movement of free gas through the top layers of permafrost and they could also have caused destabilization of one or more methane hydrates, resulting in large abrupt release of methane into the atmosphere on April 26.

Loss of the integrity of the permafrost is particularly threatening in the Arctic, where the sea ice looks set to disappear within years, resulting in huge albedo changes in summer. Decrease of surface reflectivity results in increases in absorption of energy from sunlight and decreases in shortwave radiation in the atmosphere. The latter results in lower photo-dissociation rates of tropospheric gases. Photo-dissociation of the ozone molecule is the major process that leads to the production of OH (hydroxyl radical), the main oxidizing (i.e., cleansing) gas species in the troposphere. A 2009 NASA study projects this to lead to a decrease in OH concentrations and a weakening of the oxidizing capacity of the Arctic troposphere, further increasing the vulnerability of the Arctic to warming in case of additional methane releases.

Levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are already very high in the Arctic atmosphere, while large quantities of black carbon get deposited on snow and ice, further contributing to the albedo changes. This threatens to result in rapid summer warming of many parts of the Arctic Ocean with very shallow waters. Additionally, rivers can bring increasingly warm water into those shallow seas in summer, adding to the threat that heat will penetrate the seabed that contains huge quantities of methane.

Methane at up to 2241 ppb on January 23, 2013 - this is a 2.42 MB animation that may take some time to fully load

Above image, earlier included in a post at the Arctic-news blog, shows methane concentrations on January 23, 2013, when a reading of 2241 ppb was recorded in the Arctic. 

Analysis of sediment cores collected in 2009 from under ice-covered Lake El'gygytgyn in the northeast Russian Arctic suggest that, last time the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about as high as it is today (roughly 3.5 to 2 million years ago), regional precipitation was three times higher and summer temperatures were about 15 to 16 degrees Celsius (59 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit), or about 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

As temperatures rose back in history, it is likely that a lot of methane will have vented from hydrates in the Arctic, yet without causing runaway warming. Why not? The rise in temperature then is likely to have taken place slowly over many years. While on occasion this may have caused large abrupt releases of methane, the additional methane from such releases could each time be broken down within decades, also because global methane levels in the atmosphere were much lower than today.

In conclusion, the situation today is much more threatening, particularly in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), as further described in the earlier post methane hydrates.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Antarctic methane peaks at 2249 ppb

Methane levels in the atmosphere above Antarctica peaked at 2249 parts per billion on May 9, 2013.

The chart below shows that very high levels of methane have been recorded over Antarctica for some time now.These very high methane emissions occur on the heights of East Antarctica. The map below shows the highest altitudes on Antarctica colored red.

Antarctic map by the U.K.-based Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling (CPOM)

Antarctica is covered in a thick layer of ice, as indicated by the image below. It appears that these very high emissions are caused by methane from hydrates that is escaping in the form of free gas bubbling up through the ice sheet.

Antarctic map showing the height of the ice sheet created with CryoSat-2 data
The danger is that such emissions will escalate, not only over Antarctica, but also on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and in the Arctic.

Peter Carter, contributor to the Arctic-news blog, comments:
“This is of enormous planetary emergency significance because unlike the Arctic methane hydrate is the only possible source of this extraordinary emission of Antarctic methane.”

Albert Kallio, also contributor to the Arctic-news blog, comments:
“The Antarctic methane rise is an extremely worrying phenomenon. It can be caused by two processes. Neither a direct sunlight, nor atmospheric warming, can reach to the base of the ice sheet. However, it is still almost certainly to be a result of global warming – teleconnections – like other recent methane rises seen over the Arctic Ocean, Siberia and North American tundra:

(1) Theoretically, it could be a result of melt water percolation through Antarctic ice sheet to its base, and then, thawing the permafrost soil beneath the ice sheet.

(2) I suggest that methane is coming out from the Antarctic soils because of isostatic equilibrium change that has occurred between the weight loads levied by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) and that of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).

While the East Antarctic ice accumulates weight, the West Antarctic ice loses its weight due to ablation (melting). As the fluids both in the asthenosphere and the crust are incompressible, the changing fluid pressure of one channels from one to the other via the subterranean fluid conduits. These can consist both hot magma and water which transports heat from deep towards the surface.

Asthenosphere is made of extremely water-soluble, but dense rock, Peridotite. If incursion of water from above gets into the peridotite, it hydrates and starts to melt. Hydrogen in water molecule tears molecules like NaCl apart to Na+ and Cl- as the bouncing water molecule swipes its two hydrogen tails in collisions with the other molecules. While NaCl is completely knocked down by water molecule’s hydrogen, in case of Peridotite molecules only some atomic parts are blown out, hence the process is called “partial melting”.

The First Nations UN General Assembly motion’s geophysical annotations attribute the onset of the Ice Ages completely for the continental plates drifting phenomenon. The continental plate drifting had caused crustal shearing at very high latitudes. The newly formed faults and the shearing of the continental plate then allowed water to reach Peridotite to liquefy it. This caused large lava floods onto sea floor boiling the ocean's water which then landed as snow.

My view is that Antarctica has developed now an adequate disequilibrium which pumps water into Peridotite, which then liquefies in the asthenosphere (and also in the crustal plate where there are Peridotite pockets within the Antarctic plate).

As a result of the ice sheet disequilibrium, some ice and water has forced their way into the Peridotite reservoirs, now liquefying it. This liquefaction allows heat to escape in the forms of heated water (a creation of subglacial geysers), or rock incursions such as lava floods and subglacial volcanoes that have started to develop beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The Gamburtsev Range is probably this kind of series of volcanoes and is a candidate for the EAIS methane.

As the heat starts rising more to the surface to (the base of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet), the ground warms and releases methane which is then dissolved into subglacial Antarctic water currents. (There are plenty of subglacial water currents and lakes to transport methane and dissolve it in water beneath Antarctic ice.)

The accumulation of water, pre-existing faults in bed rocks under the Antarctic ice sheet and local weight loads all determining where and when the methane starts oozing out once the ice sheet has now sufficiently changed from its multi-millennial equilibrium.”
The graph below shows when glaciation and build-up of the ice sheet took place on Antarctica back in history.

Above graph also shows the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Wikipedia adds that due to the coarse sampling and averaging involved in this record, it is likely that the full magnitude of the PETM is underestimated by a factor of 2-4 times its apparent height. Temperature anomaly differences between geographic areas are also indicated on the map below, from the University of Texas Arlington Climate Research Group.

Geographical reconstruction for the PETM from the PALEOMAP Project ( .
Boxes indicate reconstructed surface temperature anomalies for the PETM relative to Paleocene background
temperatures based on oxygen isotopes, Mg/Ca ratios and TEX86 (compiled by Appy Sluijs)
When comparing today's situation with the situation millions of years ago, it's good to keep the following points in mind:
  1. Methane hydrates on Antarctica formed after glaciation, making it likely that the quantity of methane on Antarctica today is higher than during the PETM. The role of methane hydrates in this event is further discussed in a number of papers, such as by Dickens and by Gu et al
  2. Levels of all greenhouse gases (in particular methane) and other climate forcers (such as soot) in the atmosphere are already very high today and rising. The rate at which temperatures are rising today is extremely rapid, even compared with a peak such as the PETM, when global temperatures rose by about 6 °C (11 °F) over a period of approximately 20,000 years.
Today's situation therefore has more potential for methane to accumulate faster in the atmosphere than it can be broken down naturally, threatening to escalate into runaway warming exceeding PETM conditions.