Methane in the Twilight Zone (First Episode)

01/11/2012 01:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 12, 2012

Last month saw methane emissions entering the twilight zone for the first time. By an odd quirk of timing, two incongruous things happened virtually at once. At this year's annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco, leading experts dealing with a source for potentially significant Arctic methane emissions, in an area known as the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (or ESAS), gave a disturbing presentation in which they reported having recently found large plumes of escaping methane there bubbling from the sea floor, up to a hundred times larger than any they had found in the area before. Such emissions are important to watch: the carbon locked in methane hydrate (essentially frozen in an ice cage) in this one area is something like five times the carbon emitted by all human activity since industrialization, so if even a small percentage were to destabilize and out-gas to the atmosphere it could significantly alter the path of climate change.

Now, at the same time that news of their disturbing observations was starting to make waves around the climate world, methane emissions from the Arctic hit the front page of the New York Times: On the center of the front page, along with a photograph, was a feature article, "Warming Arctic Permafrost Fuels Climate Change Worries" (Justin Gilles, Dec. 16, 2011). The oddest part, though, was how the 'fuel' for those worries had been highly filtered of impurities: The very source of Arctic methane emissions being discussed by the scientists at the AGU conference was entirely left out, although the piece was clearly of such scope and length that it could easily have been included. The author later tried to explain himself at the New York Times Green blog, saying that he intended only to discuss land-based emissions, and thus left out the ESAS situation, but his explanations only seemed to make things worse, as though he didn't quite appreciate just how intertwined with each other these different emission sources are likely to become in this region -- one of the most rapidly warming on the planet. Further, he framed his discussion by lumping these ESAS methane hydrates with other much deeper methane hydrates found around the world, making him appear somewhat out of touch with the particular features of the region concerned, since in many respects these ESAS hydrates share little with most others and are in fact quite unique.

Around the same time, Andrew Revkin, who writes the New York Times' Dot Earth blog, also ran a number of pieces on the topic. His first one, "Methane Time Bomb in Arctic seas - Apocalypse Not," was surprisingly dismissive. He received lots of commentary and quickly posted more pieces, including one in which the principal scientists studying the ESAS responded themselves, and another in which he solicited the opinions of various experts, and received an interesting array of responses, some far less dismissive. Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago, a contributor to the popular and authoritative RealClimate blog, said this:

Even if it turns out that rapid methane degassing isn't in the cards, you still do have to worry about those several trillion metric tons of near-surface carbon and how secure they are. It's like worrying about the state of security of Soviet nuclear warheads, but where you have no idea what kind of terrorists there might be out there and what their capabilities are -- and on what time scales they operate.

On the other hand, another University of Chicago climate scientist, also a contributor to RealClimate, took quite the opposite stance. We will look at the situation from various perspectives in coming episodes.

Back in November I posted a piece called "Methane and the Fierce Urgency of Now," about the need to lower anthropogenic emissions of methane (and black carbon) as quickly as possible, to help blunt, and possibly stave off for the time being, just the kinds of dangers we are talking about now from natural Arctic methane. Unfortunately, that fierce urgency is hard to communicate, but I will continue trying, by now looking deeper into these dangers, looking into various things we might do about them, and also looking into the growing internal conversations about such dangers and what they say about the state of climate science and the mindset of the climate scientists themselves.

Perhaps 'methane time-bombs,' and hopefully errant Soviet warheads, will never go off, not because they are or are not 'in the cards', but because our coming to better understand their potential to do so might of itself rapidly shift our understanding and hence our strategy, and we will defuse the situation. The great climate scientist James Hansen once said something to the effect that climate change doesn't have to be a tragedy, but it needs to be an action flick. If defusing the Arctic methane situation ends up being like The Hurt Locker and reaches the level of Hansen's 'action flick,' I guess that will be thrilling, but I suspect that whether or not this becomes a thriller, it is sure to become a whole lot more weird. Welcome to Methane in the Twilight Zone and stay tuned.