Arctic Meltdown : Methane Alert

One of the key fears of cryosphere scientists, those who study the cold places on Earth, is a scenario where the permafrost and sub-sea continental shelves around the Arctic Ocean become unstable and start emitting uncontrollable quantities of methane into the atmosphere.

Methane is an important by-product of biological decomposition, and is also found in icy deposits known as clathrates – methane hydrates – estimated to be very widespread in marine and geological deposits.

Although it is short-lived, before breaking down or reacting with other molecules, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some 23 or 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

An ongoing unfreezing of the sub-zero “Northern Wastes” would set up a constant flow of biological methane into the Arctic sky and so the warming would be continuous – a major risk to attempts to limit climate change – because it could not be controlled by altering mankind’s economic and energy activities.

Reports of high levels of atmospheric methane in the Arctic region in the last few months have been mangled by the media headline generation machine to raise their urgency value – making them into “news” – and the reaction from most sensible academics and commentators is to downplay talk of a catastrophhic “Methane Burp”.

Yet the data is interesting enough to warrant continued monitoring and explanatory power – for the methane story is complex and shifting. It may be time for alarm bells to ring, however we’re not sure exactly how much data we need to see before we do so.

The long picture for methane in the air is one of hundreds of years of acceleration :-

In the last few decades however, atmospheric methane started to level off :-

However, since around 2007, methane concentrations have been rising once more :-

Following the recent headlines about high methane readings in the Arctic, there have been a number of online discsusions about what it could signify.

Tamino’s Open Mind doesn’t see a dangerous increase in emissions when looking at a seasonally-adjusted selection of data from the World Data Center for Greenhouse Gases and Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) flask measurements of methane concentrations at around surface level :-

I asked Giovanni to chart recent measurements from the AIRS project, the Atmospheric InfraRed Sounder on board NASA’s Aqua satellite spacecraft :-






The months December 2011 to January 2012 show a significant peak in methane concentrations in the area 60 degrees North to 90 degrees North.

This peak seen by satellite does not appear to be reflected in the surface measurement charts I asked the online ESRL tool to plot for me :-











What could be causing the satellite reading peaks to be so high relative to the changes in ground-based measurements ? What is happening in the different layers of the atmosphere ?

Has there been some kind of “detonation” of the chemistry of the air above the Arctic, causing peaks in methane concentrations at high altitudes not seen at ground level ?

Do the AIRS readings need adjustment because of unusual pressure and temperature gradients around the Arctic over the boreal (Northern Hemisphere) winter 2011 – 2012 ?

Has there been a rapid release of methane somewhere, such as from an oil and gas production field somewhere in the region ? Will the international greenhouse gas inventories compiled by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Kyoto Protocol nations reveal anything about this ?

What on Earth is going on ?


A few resources

The starting point for atmospheric methane science is the UNFCCC IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

Some recent research papers on atmospheric methane science :-

SCHAEFER, K., ZHANG, T., BRUHWILER, L. and BARRETT, A. P. (2011), Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming. Tellus B, 63: 165–180. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0889.2011.00527.x

Seen from the journal page.

Dlugokencky, E. J., et al. (2009), Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L18803, doi:10.1029/2009GL039780

Seen from the journal page.

Bousquet, P., Ringeval, B., Pison, I., Dlugokencky, E. J., Brunke, E.-G., Carouge, C., Chevallier, F., Fortems-Cheiney, A., Frankenberg, C., Hauglustaine, D. A., Krummel, P. B., Langenfelds, R. L., Ramonet, M., Schmidt, M., Steele, L. P., Szopa, S., Yver, C., Viovy, N., and Ciais, P.: Source attribution of the changes in atmospheric methane for 2006–2008, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 11, 3689-3700, doi:10.5194/acp-11-3689-2011, 2011 (Discussion Paper)

Seen from the journal page.

The Arctic Ocean could be a major source of methane

Joining the oil and gas industry in drilling the Arctic for clues

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