Do These Bubbles Signal the Start of Rapid Climate Change?

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First it was mysterious craters appearing in Siberia — possibly the result of the Earth belching methane as permafrost thaws and collapses.

Then scientists observed methane gas bubbling to the surface from the sea floor in the Arctic Ocean, where for eons it lay trapped in a flammable slush. The researchers who discovered the plumes — a joint team of Americans, Swedes and Russians on an expedition called the SWERUS-C3 — suspect the methane is escaping due to an influx of warmer water from the Atlantic Ocean, which, in turn, could be tied to climate change.

Methane bubbles, observed by the SWERUS-C3 crew. (Video: Pete Hill)

The release of methane on a large scale has long worried scientists. The greenhouse gas is 20 times more damaging to the Earth over a 100-year period than CO2, and is even more potent in the short term. Should the deposits trapped within the Arctic escape into the air, it could kick off a highly destructive climate feedback loop: The methane would cause rapid warming, which would melt more of the Arctic, which would release more methane, which would cause more warming.

This eventuality was the subject of an ominous commentary published in Nature last summer. It placed the cost of methane escaping into the atmosphere at $60 trillion — the size of the world economy. (Some climatologists argued that the article went too far.)

So do these recent observations — the craters, the plumes — mean a methane-fueled climate disaster has come sooner than previously feared?

We’re in trouble “if even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere,” tweeted widely-published climatologist Jason Box (with stronger phrasing) after the news of the plumes surfaced. “The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions,” Box explained in a blog post.

BillMoyers.com reached out via email to Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a renowned climatologist and the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies for his opinion on the plumes observed by the SWERUS crew. He said it’s not yet time for panic.

“The problem with a lot of this research is that we don’t have a long baseline of observations. Therefore when scientists report a new observation, it’s impossible to tell whether it has always been there or whether it is genuinely new,” he wrote. “That goes for these observations in particular.”

He explained that during two periods in the “relatively recent” past — first in the Early Holocene, six to eight thousand years ago, and then in the Eemian, 125,000 years ago — the Arctic was warmer than it is now due to “wobbles in the Earth’s orbit.” Ice core records show that during those warmer periods, the Earth did not release large amounts of methane.

Because the Arctic is not as warm now as it was then, Schmidt wrote, we are not yet at the point where we should expect the Arctic’s frozen methane deposits to melt.

But should today’s human-caused global warming cause the Arctic to warm beyond the high temperatures of the Early Holocene and Eemian periods, the tundra, oceans and ice caps might release methane in amounts never seen before. And that could be quite bad.

As global warming continues, Schmidt wrote, “we will arrive at a point that is completely unprecedented within the last few million years, and at that point, I would be far less sanguine. We are, however, not yet there.”

John Light blogs and works on multimedia projects for Moyers & Company. Before joining the Moyers team, he was a public radio producer. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. A New Jersey native, John studied history and film at Oberlin College and holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow John on Twitter @lighttweeting.
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  • Sir Loins

    I say bring it. Speed it up. Let’s get the destruction going. We’ve done absolutely nothing to make this planet the paradise it’s supposed to be. 7 billion of us is 6.5 billion too many for sure. We are getting what we deserve. I’m not listening to another mofo talk about we need to do this or that to stave off massive climate change until I start hearing the root cause of every damn problem this planet faces: us.

  • Anonymous

    We are seemingly entering fry/freeze zone. Fires in the summer, Arctic blasts in the winters…. Good for corporations who help reduce the effects on humans, bad for life going extinct….

  • Anonymous

    WOULD YOU PLEASE START EXPLAINING THE SITUATION MORE !!!!!
    These vague statements: we’re in trouble. less sanguine etc.

    What could happen if more methane escapes?
    GIVE MORE DETAILS
    These kind of cry wolf articles give more power to the denialists.

  • William H. Calvin

    The trouble is, nearly all PhD scientists, climate specialists included, are not trained in risk assessment and emergency management in the manner of physicians and the higher ranks of the military. They tend to speak as if the scientific standards for statistical relevance are appropriate for ringing alarm bells. They tend to focus on “How to we get better data?” rather than on closing windows of opportunity to do something about it.

    What could we do to prepare for a methane emergency? Develop a fast method for removing CO2 from the air. Once the CO2 levels are drawn down from 400 to 300 ppm, keep the excess removal capacity on reserve for combating the overheating from a methane outburst.

  • David Ocame

    Mr. Calvin, you must the stupidest human on Earth – not excepting Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman, of course. Scientists have been giving you wonderful “windows of opportunity” for decades now. The fact that this seems news to you is that you haven’t paid attention, like most people on the Earth. Exactly what sort of system do you have dreamed up for removing that much CH4 in that amount of time? Nothing. You got nothing. So, stop irritating people with your talk of risk assessment, of which you obviously know nothing. Scientists have been uniquely positioned and qualified, above all others, to speak on this topic. You’ve simply been deaf.

  • David Ocame

    OMG, another deaf Human. Stand in line with William H. what-his-name, above. Because you people haven’t listened for the last 20 years – it’s very possibly too late and all there is to do is “cry wolf”. You’ve been told what to do – all of you. Don’t bother getting all concerned now. You blew it.

  • Anonymous

    It is possible you may be right. There have been periods of extinction: the dinosaurs, early man and many species, due to every reason from catastrophic events to over hunting and in some cases those that replaced the lost species improved their ability to survive like us. I can only hope that if we do ourselves in, we will leave a really good record to show at least one of the new species that may be similar to us how stupid we were and how we did ourselves in.

  • Anonymous

    The scientists are being too cautious in how they describe what will happen..people are not listening. The people who write articles like this one have to bring the whole issue to life for the average person with more details..not just a rehashing of the cautious scientific articles. I have solar panels and drive a Prius…with more advice I would do more..but the news people are not giving us enough information.

  • kctruth

    Lemme’ guess: If we’ll just give the government more taxes, they’ll change the climate and save the world! What hubris.

  • D Bouton Baldridge

    This alone is reason enough to stop all oil and coal operations and devote all of those resources to capturing the methane just as WWII efforts to stop building cars in 1942 and built tanks, we should make this a top priority the consequences of inaction far out weigh the cost of taking steps now.

  • http://www.natureslogicphotography.com HOLLYBERKOWITZ

    Dr. Schmidt, humans tend to box their perceptions into private, immediate, obvious and cash-driven spheres without vision for the future…..speeding metallic spheres that crush and destroy public infrastructure foundations and life’s fragile web of critical flows that hold the fragile web for all life intact. That, I am afraid has become the mindset of those that don’t want to change daily habits so that they can keep earth alive for their children. It is very, very sad that a cash-driven 1% are allowed to destroy their own childrens’ future and the earth and future that all need…..sucking all down into the negative. You need to help guide the dead energy industries to help our world to transition from our addictions to dead, fossilized energy asap …and to invest immediately into a safer, more affordable Renewable Energy Economy and Infrastructure to pull millions, billions out of poverty.

    Ironically, our cash system counts little more than empty numbers of human cash……counting the most critical flows for life the least….and the least critical the most, the most deadly the most…….

    Ironically, human cash counts the most critical flow, photosynthetic oxygen as O2 the least….even though humans die within minutes without O2.

    Ironically, human cash counts the next most critical flow, water as H2O the next least…even though humans die within days without H2O.

    Ironically, human cash counts the next most critical and obvious flow, soil production and soil makers the next least..soil to grow food for us to eat…even though humans die within months without food.

    Ironically, human cash counts the most deadly structures the most….bloody diamonds, gold, dirty energy, dirty oil and oil wars, tar through pipes and fricken fracken that releases methane that is 25 to 100 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide/CO2 that has already baked and drowned our earth.

    Illogically.

    Humans need human cash to build great cities and great civilizations….but also need to consume the critical flows produced by nature far beyond those cities. Instead, ironically, human cash systems crush nature’s fragile but critical productivity and hidden genetic potentials hiding in every seed, seedling, soil that wants to grow upwards toward light enough to produce abundant riches enough for All 100% to share now and generations from now, infinitely…if humans do not crush nature.

    But human cash crushes life and land to divide to count….and to count to divide to conquer to crush the competition, the other, the diverse, the non-same. Life needs the diverse and to share to survive, to produce critical flows enough to nurture, satisfy needs of all life and land.

    But some just don’t get it and limit their vision to the privatized, immediate, obvious and cash-driven, blocking access to nature’s wonders. Humans need to discover wonders of nature to develop scientific literacy enough to ask ‘Why?” and to wonder enough to learn.

    Has our nation produced a 1% blinded by cash-flow floods?

    We need leaders of vision and wisdom, instead, scientific literacy enough to find a safer course into an uncertain future….and those that limit their vision and acceptance of the absolute have not learned and will not learn about the infinitely intricate and vast wonders of nature that hide far beyond the immediate, far beyond the obvious, impossible to understand in human terms..,….truths often opposite of our immediate, obvious, everyday walls and barriers that blind us.

  • nidur

    We wouldn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced. We should all just keep s-ting all over the world, our only home. Certainly putting billions of tons of CO2 has no influence on the environment Just look at Beijing China, where people have to wear gas masks on some days. Very stylish. It’s all Al Gore’s fault. (satire)

  • TheCatalyst

    IMHO this is what we all as a species should really be worried about.

  • kctruth

    Capturing methane from cow farts would be easier and more effective!

  • TheCatalyst

    Actually, that is a load of BS.

  • William Carr

    Well, it’s really quite simple.

    When all that carbon was laid down, there was a jungle all the way to the Poles.

    Sea levels were a LOT higher, the energy in the weather patterns was a LOT higher…

    We’re looking at incredibly rapid heating and a total disruption of weather patterns.

    Already winds have been tracked blowing ACROSS the North Pole, something that was impossible before due to the Polar Vortex.

    Without the Polar Vortex, winters in the Northern Hemisphere will get harsher, while summers at the Equator will make Texas today look cool and comfortable.

    Droughts will become common, with catastrophic super-hurricanes as the flip side.

    The droughts are the worst of it.

    We can stop building houses by the ocean, and move inland.

    We can start building underground for better shelter from storms.

    But droughts hit us where we live.

    I guess we’ll have to start building pipelines to carry seawater inland, and use desalination to keep the crops growing.

    But Farmers won’t be able to pay for that much fresh water, so taxes will have to be applied to the wealthy and Corporations if we want to keep food prices from creating starvation.

    Ironically, we’d be better off burning that Methane, as the CO2 is 1/20th as damaging to the climate.

    But… if that Methane bearing ice were to rise to the surface too quickly, and lighting touched it off…

    There’s technically enough there to use up the oxygen in the atmosphere.

  • William Carr

    Humans aren’t the root cause; unrestrained Greed is the root cause.

    And we let Billionaires get away with selling us the water that already belongs to us, because they bribe dirty politicians.

    With a REAL push into Solar Power in the SouthWest, akin to the Moon Shot in the 60’s, we can shut down our Coal plants, switch to hybrid and electric cars, desalinate the water we drink, and even IMPROVE the Earth…

    But we have to get rid of unrestrained Capitalism first. The “managed” Capitalism of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s worked far better.

  • Chuck

    Lemme’ guess, taxes have you strapped to the point where you’re next vacation to Thailand is in question.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you your concise explanation. It did help me understand more. Something that could help others understand are pictures like showing jungle all the way up to the polar regions. There is a need for more graphics. The capitalization of some words helped too.

    Also the climate deniers…are using the cold winters in the north east to say we are not experiencing climate change. They need to be told about how the winters will be worse in some areas.

    Scientists are wonderful people who have made all our lives so much better..but they are very cautious in their predictions and that has created a problem in activating people to work on our responses to climate change. Its up to the news media to act as an interface between scientists and ordinary people and to enliven the effects of climate change so that people understand it.

    Some of it is so frightening that people can not think about it and will only be able to deny it…The idea that lightning could set off the methane that would then use up our oxygen is that kind of information. Its too scary to think about…

  • TheCatalyst

    If ‘hypothetically speaking’ methane ever reaches levels high enough to combust, all life would have already been extinguished.

  • ChazNCenTex

    I keep wondering if we’re heading for a climate more like our sister planet Venus.

  • Sir Loins

    I agree with you about all you say. But I do think there are too many of us . . . 7 billion is too many, way too many. It’s the numbers of humans demanding their fair share, taking, blindly reproducing (I know a few parents and they have no idea what’s going on in the world, they’re too high on baby to care) . . . The problem with desalination is: who’s going to do it? I’d wager big corporations like Coca-Cola, and will they offer desalinated water for a decent cost? Not likely. It’s also the damage our huge numbers is doing to other species we share the planet with. 20 years there will be no more Lions, Tigers, Elephants in the wild. That’s the tip of the iceberg. Personally, I think it’s over. We’re in for it and luckily for you and me, we won’t be here to see it.

  • Jack Wolf

    One thing the early Holocene did not have and will surely accelerate the process is us.

  • Jack Wolf

    Good, go do it.

  • Jack Wolf

    Not sure about that… Concentrations could be high enough in small areas where the terrain could create an inversion and trap the methane.

  • Jack Wolf

    With all due respect to Dr. Schmidt, a new paper published in an AGU journal this weekend indicated: “Current south Greenland ice margin retreat suggests that south Greenland may have now warmed to or above earliest Holocene summer temperatures.” I also suggest that the fact that we are seeing all these new phenomenon is alarming, regardless of the baseline observation period. We know the concentration of greenhouse gases, and we know where all this is going. These phenomenon can not be stopped, and add more greenhouse gases to the system. Mean time they want to drill for natural gas along the S Atlantic and Gulf, releasing prodigious amounts of fugitive ghgs. One thing the early Holocene did not have and will surely accelerate the process is us.

  • Jack Wolf

    This is the same process that cause explosions at farms when the manure piles get too deep and too hot. It recently happened at a goat farm, and at another with hay storage. I hope the farmers are aware of this danger, though I doubt they do. Most I’ve met don’t think the climate is changing, even though they keep referring to the terrible growing conditions. The USDA must be more proactive in this.

  • Jack Wolf

    See Dr. Peter Ward’s “The Medea Hypothesis”.

  • Jack Wolf

    Also published last weekend in an AGU journal showed: “Current south Greenland ice margin retreat suggests that south Greenland may have now warmed to or above earliest Holocene summer temperatures.” It’s title is: “Earliest Holocene south Greenland ice sheet retreat within its late Holocene extent”
    Why do you suppose Dr. Schmidt and Archer can’t see the writing on the wall? Are they too confined to think outside the institutional box? Or perhaps political pressure to keep the ball rolling for as long as possible?

  • Suzian

    Drive down Winter Lane in Brooklyn 44144. They’ve replaced many, but there are still 8 or so partially dead trees. The roses were killed to the grownd all over this area. It wasn’t a disease that got the roses, I’m sure about that. The trees, perhaps. But they never leafed out in the spring and were healthy last year. Polar Vortex, 20 below, extended winter. I think it was the climate.

  • TheCatalyst

    If we ALL cannot learn to work together, NONE of us deserves to be here. Period. If you say you can’t, you won’t.

    Oh, and unless you are dead already… you are seeing these things happen …right now.

  • Raymond DeBrane

    It’s like we’re living inside a sci-fi movie.

  • Raymond DeBrane

    Most people out in the rurals are conservative Republicans who listen to the climate denial garbage on conservative talk radio. So they have been brainwashed into believing that disinfo.

  • Raymond DeBrane

    Good luck with that. The billionaires have bought everybody and they pay no real penalty for it. Figure out a way that the American people can take their wealth and use it to fix things, then we can start fixing things. They don’t deserve to have any money at all because they are the ones who stuck all of that climate denial in peoples’ heads by paying off politicians and conservative and even conspiracy talkers and other media sources to shill for them, and they continued to make billions of $$$ when the fossil fuel business should have been closed down in the late 1980′s.
    Google Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He’s done climate denial exposes’ on the Senate floor. There’s videos of some of it. To tell you the truth, I think Democratic politicians don’t deny climate change because they have a large environmental base of voters that they need to get elected. And they have atheists and the GOP has religious righters, so the Dems have to preach evolution and the GOP has to preach creationism. Go figure. What a world! Oh, I did read an article on the net about Dem politicians in coal states denying the climate problem because they have a large coal worker base of voters. Incredible!!
    Oh, want a new take on evolution? Google scientist Seth Lloyd. He says that the universe is a quantum level computer and is the driver behind evolution. That makes sense to me because I’m an electronics geek and electronics design requires creative thinking, and an intensive amount of math, even calculus is used in some cases. I talked to a high end stereo speaker rep who told me that calculus was used in their speakers’ crossover networks.
    Now how did blind chance and natural selection start doing high level, math and creative thinking? The obvious answer to me is hell no it didn’t!

  • Anonymous

    We are now seeing and will see in more dramatic fashion in the near future dramatic changes in weather as old patterns are disrupted. This results from the decline of the differential in temperatures between the Arctic and the tropics. The jet stream will meander south, wind patterns will be disrupted and droughts and erratic temperatures will result. This will severely affect vegetation and food sources.

  • http://Beaufishblues.wordpress.com/ leah #lovemyplanet

    why do we need capitalism? One episode of star trek shows they had no money. Cooperative can work well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RPManke.solar RevPhil Manke

    The Reput’s will tell us it is just not economically feasible to become alarmed about space ship earth at this time. I’m guessing they have a planned schedule circulating among their minions. Can we get a copy to alay concerns?
    Evolution takes no prisoners.

  • Phil Johnson

    Some agency (I can’t find the source right now) put out a temperature chart to support the finding that this past August was the warmest in history. I point to that, not to emphasize the obvious, but to show that the NE part of Siberia and the adjoining Arctic Sea were among the areas most affected by high temperatures – some 4 to 5 degrees Celsius warmer. I submit that that phenomenon was a ranking factor in methane release, but recognize that some inter-relational analysis needs to be done to verify that.