Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Methane Plumes of Doom

Another reason I'm trying not to worry about the global financial crisis: there's a much more serious global meltdown underway at the moment that appears to be accelerating, and whose long-term consequences will be much more destructive than the collapse of the international credit markets. I refer, of course, to global warming, and to a new scientific survey that suggests it may be about to speed up dramatically. From The Independent (UK) of 23 September 2008:

"Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia's northern coast* have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

"In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through 'methane chimneys' rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a 'lid' to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age...

"Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback [loop]...The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on earth."

The complete story can be found here. We've known for several years of the release of methane deposits situated below melting permafrost and Arctic lakes (see this story about Siberian lake-thaw ebullition**, for example), but I believe this is the first time I've read of similar discharges from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, which appears to be one of the largest methane sinks in the world. Elevated local levels of methane, according to the Independent story, are most likely responsible for the accelerated rate of warming in the Arctic (as compared to the rest of the world), but it's unlikely that all of that gas will remain confined to the Arctic for very long.

As a wise satirist recently said, "it's just a natural part of the End of Days."

* Which, incidentally, would have been impossible about ten years ago.
** My fifty-cent word of the week. [Regrettably, but perhaps predictably, the story link appears to be broken (10.8.2011)]

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