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Arctic methane: time bomb or “boogeyman”?

 

Scientist Laura Brosius collects methane from Eight Mile Lake using an "umbrella trap".

Laura Brosius collects methane from Eight Mile Lake using an “umbrella trap” (Pic: I.Quaile, 2008)

When the Ice Blog was launched in 2008, one of the first posts from a trip to Alaska entitled “Ice-Capades and Alaska baking with methane?” included a visit to frozen-over “Eight-mile Lake” in the Denali national park, where scientists Katey Walter and Laura Brosius were measuring methane emissions from melting ice and permafrost. The young “climate ambassadors” I was travelling with helped her to set up “umbrella traps” and capture bubbles of methane coming to the surface. The “proof of the pudding” was setting a match to the gas and watching it catch light. An interesting experiment.  But the subject has huge wide-ranging implications.  Methane is also a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2. Walter and others have since recorded numerous methane seeps in Alaska and Greenland. As global temperatures increase, the permafrost thaws, potentially releasing the gas stored both in the permafrost on land and in the form of methane hydrates under water.

Since that Alaskan trip, methane has beconme an increasingly “hot topic”,  with more research being conducted and data collected. The reservoir of methane stored under the Arctic ice and permafrost is huge.  And there is increasing scientific evidence that with the world warming, this reservoir is not going to stay there for ever. The concentration of atmospheric methane has increased dramatically in the last 200 years – especially in the Arctic. In 2008, scientists came up with a scenario where up to 50 gigatonnes of methane could be released abruptly from the East Siberia Arctic Shelf (ESAS) because of the melting of permafrost which had hitherto kept it safely sealed in.

You can see the methane bubbles rising. (Pic I. Quaile)

You can see the methane bubbles rising. (Pic I. Quaile)

Fountains of methane

In 2011, a joint US-Russian expedition surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia was surprised to observe fountains of methane rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed. At that time, scientists expressed concern that with the melting of Arctic sea ice and permafrost, the huge methane stores might be released over a relatively short period of time.

The SWERUS-C3 expedition headed by Örjan Gustafsson from Stockholm University is currently underway in the Laptev Sea, where they have discovered “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor of the Laptev continental slope”. Gustavsson writes in his blog that he was surprised by this. He speculates that it could have its origins in collapsing “methane hydrates”, clusters of methane trapped in frozen water due to high pressure and low temperatures.

“While there has been much speculation about the vulnerability of regular marine hydrates along the continental slopes of the Arctic rim, very few actual observations of methane releases due to collapsing marine hydrates on the Arctic slope have been made”, Gustafsson writes.  He thinks a “tongue” of relatively warm Atlantic water, presumably intruding across the Arctic Ocean at 200-600 meters depth could have something to do with the methane seeps. Some evidence shows this water mass has recently become warmer.

“As this warm Atlantic water, the last remnants of the Gulf stream, propagates eastward along the upper slope of the East Siberian margin, it may lead to the destabilization of methane hydrates on the upper portion of the slope”, Gustafsson writes.

Costly bubbles

In 2013,  a paper published in the journal Nature put a price tag on the possibility of the Arctic’s methane being released. The experts suggest it could trigger costs of 60 trillion US dollars. Normally, as soon as money is involved, public interest tends to rise. The report should really have brought  the subject of “Arctic methane hydrates” out of the science corner onto the economic and political agenda. Which is, of course, where it has to be, if there is any chance of limiting the Arctic thaw by halting global warming.

There is a huge amount of methane captured under Arctic permafrost. (Pic I. Quaile)

Investigating the huge amount of methane captured under Arctic permafrost. (Pic I. Quaile)

There are scientists who insist that such a scenario is not likely. Let me refer you here to a detailed analysis of the scientific literature on the subject published by Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, in EarthInsight hosted by the Guardian, in 2013. He points out that none of the scientists  who reject the plausibility of the scenario are experts in the Arctic, and specifically the ESAS. On the other hand, there is an emerging consensus among ESAS specialists based on continuing fieldwork, he writes, “highlighting a real danger of unprecedented quantities of methane venting due to thawing permafrost”.

Rhetoric, polemics – but accuracy please!

Ahmed comes down on the side of the Arctic experts who are highly concerned about the risk of methane being set free in large quantities. That is already clear from the title of his article “Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane timebomb”. Sub-headed: “Dismissals of catastrophic methane danger ignore robust science in favour of outdated mythology of climate safety.” Yes, you could say that is tendentious. It is certainly rhetorically powerful.

Perhaps that accounts in part for the reaction I got when I tweeted the link to his analysis recently as interesting background to the ongoing debate on Arctic methane. One response told me to stop “fear mongering” and referred to an article describing methane as a “climate boogeyman”. (In connection with studies on methane leaks from natural gas production). Aha. Emotions are running high – on both sides.

Still – Ahmed’s article is based on a thorough analysis of both sides of the arguments. It seems this cannot be said of a piece on news.com.au, headlined “Are Siberia’s methane blow-holes the first warning sign of unstoppable climate change?”. The article links three giant craters which have been found in Siberia to the scientific research of Jason Box, a renowned glaciology professor and Greenland expert, starting with the tantalizing question:

“What do three enormous craters in the Siberian wastelands have to do with a terrified American climate scientist? Methane. And that’s something to scare us all”.

In fact, as Jason Box @climate_ice tweeted to his followers, the Arctic expert’s research and concern have nothing to do with the giant craters. He tweets:

“News piece juxtaposes Siberian holes with my carbon release concerns but I have no idea about the holes”

Citing the concerns and findings of reputed scientists alongside other reported explanations of the Siberian craters as “hellmouths”, “gateways to the undead” or “aliens” does nothing for serious scientific attempts to monitor climate change in the Arctic or inform politicians and businesses about the scenarios for which the world has to prepare. Now if those of a skeptical persuasion were to take this kind of article as “fear mongering” or the “climate boogeyman”, I could just about understand it. Please, let us not detract from the value of scientific monitoring and analysis, complex computer modeling and genuine concern on the part of a lot of experts who know very well what they are talking about. And let us not bring the media into disrepute for misrepresenting the views of scientists like Jason Box by taking his findings and statements out of context in the interest of a sensationalist story. We do not need to mix fact with fiction and create “boogeymen”. The huge body of scientific findings out there is already scary enough.

Date

August 7, 2014 | 9:43 am

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Arctic thaw – carry on regardless?

 

Svalbard ice (Irene Quaile)

Svalbard ice (Irene Quaile)

When a colleague who has a lot of sympathy for those who do NOT accept that humans are responsible for global warming drew attention to the fact that this had been the hottest June on record, following hard on the hottest May, I must admit I was temporarily put of my guard. Aha, I thought. Is he finally getting the message? Alas, the answer is no. There is a small minority of people that still argues – for whatever reason – that natural variation could be responsible for all this, while acknowledging the record concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. “And all that stuff”. Hm.

Date

July 24, 2014 | 2:16 pm

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World Cup Champs for Arctic Climate?

Greenpeace Arctic protest in Bonn

Greenpeace Arctic info stand in Germany. Climate champions? (IQ)

Chancellor Merkel is on her way from the World Cup Final in Brazil to Berlin, where she will address the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. This is an informal but influential meeting of 35 international ministers, co-chaired by Peru, the host of the next world climate conference this December. UNFCCC chief Figueres is also in attendance, hoping progress will be made towards a successful Peru conference and a new world climate agreement to be signed in Paris in 2015. Yes, it is a kind of conference to prepare the conference to prepare the conference…. but every little step helps. As I wrote here and on the DW website during the last round of preparatory talks in Bonn, things are looking more positive than they once did, with the big players USA and China finally coming into the game. Here’s hoping Frau Merkel can bring some of the energy and enthusiasm from the World Cup into the “Petersberg Dialogue” (initiated on the Petersberg here in Bonn, but since moved to Berlin) and the climate process. I interviewed Martin Kaiser, the climate policy chief at Greenpeace about the current state of play. You can read the interview here. But I also talked to him about that key ice blog issue, the relevance of all this to the Arctic.

Greenpeace Climate Chief Martin Kaiser on board the Esperanza off the coast of Svalberd, 2010 (IQ)

Greenpeace Climate Chief Martin Kaiser on board the Esperanza off the coast of Svalbard, 2010 (IQ)

Here is his response, if you would like to listen: For those who prefer a read, this is what Martin Kaiser had to say about the UN climate process and the Arctic:

“If we want to limit the ice melt in the Arctic, we have to address the issue of climate change. If we don’t manage to get countries like China and the US, to drastically reduce emissions from burning coal and oil, the ice melt is unstoppable. The Arctic is one of the places in the world where you can see the drastic changes caused by global warming in a most visible way. We expect a historic minimum ice melt this September, and this will give a clear warning when heads of state are going to meet in New York at around the same time.

It’s quite contradictory that oil companies are going to the Arctic to drill for more fossil energy which will fuel global warming even more. This needs to stop. That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a sanctuary in the Arctic which prohibits commercial exploitation of the region.

(Ice Blogger: How does that look in the countries with Arctic regions?)

If we look at Canada  – It has one of the most regressive climate policies in place, Prime minister Harper is one of the worst climate deniers, and Canada is investing a lot into tar sands in the west of the country – a business model that is not sustainable. Russia’s  business model is based on the export of oil and gas, so it is problematic to talk to Russia about the protection of the Arctic at the moment. Greenpeace has had experience of how they prioritize this business model over preserving the rare ecosystem. There are more countries like China and India coming in to the Arctic, and wanting to get a share of the resources extraction, and that is a worrying sign. Instead of protecting the Arctic, it’s opening like the Wild North for the big corporates investing into oil and gas. That means we have to have a political process which clearly determines a sanctuary in the Arctic and limits commercial exploitation of it.

Finland has been quite progressive so far to move forward the idea of a sanctuary in the Arctic. We hope that rich countries like Norway or also Iceland will join that group. But that’s a long way to go.”

Date

July 14, 2014 | 10:36 am

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Arctic birds breeding earlier

Ornithologist checking nests at Arctic Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Ornithologist checking nests at Arctic Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Migratory birds that breed in the Arctic are starting to nest earlier in spring because the snow melt is occurring earlier in the season. This is confirmed by a new collaborative study,”Phenological advancement in arctic bird species: relative importance of snow melt and ecological factors” published in the current online edition of the journal Polar Biology. The scientists, including Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) biologists, looked at the nests of four shorebird species and one songbird in Alaska, recording when the first eggs were laid in the nests. The work was undertaken across four sites ranging from the oilfields of Prudhoe bay to the remote National Petroleum Reserve of western Arctic Alaska.

The scientists looked at nesting plots at different intervals in the early spring. Other variables, like the abundance of nest predators (which is thought to affect the timing of breeding) and satellite measurements of “greenup” (the seasonal flush of the new growth of vegetation) in the tundra were also assessed as potential drivers, but were found to be less important than snow melt.

Lead author Joe Liebezeit from the Audubon Society of Portland says “it seems clear that the timing of the snow melt in Arctic Alaska is the most important mechanism driving the earlier and earlier breeding dates we observed in the Arctic. The rates of advancement in earlier breeding are higher in Arctic birds than in other temperate bird species, and this accords with the fact that the Arctic climate is changing at twice the rate.”

Over nine years, the birds advanced their nesting by an average of 4-7 days. The researcher says this fits with the general observation of 0.5 days per year observed in other studies of nest initiation in the Arctic, of which, they say, there are not very many. The rates of change are much higher than those of observed in studies of temperate birds south of the Arctic.

Co-author Steve Zack from WCS says “Migratory birds are nesting earlier in the changing Arctic, presumably to track the earlier springs and abundance of insect prey. Many of these birds winter in the tropics and might be compromising their complicated calendar of movements to accommodate this change. We’re concerned that there will be a threshold where they will no longer be able to track the emergence of these earlier springs which may impact breeding success or even population viability”.

WCS Beringia Program Coordinator Martin Robards says “Everything is a moving target in the Arctic because of the changing climate. Studies like these are valuable in helping us understand how wildlife is responding to the dramatic changes in the Arctic ecosystem. The Arctic is so dramatically shaped by ice, and it is impressive how these long-distance migrants are breeding in response to the changes in the timing of melting ice.”

In connection with Migratory Bird Day some time ago,  I talked to Ferdinand Spina, head of Science at Italy’s National Institute for Wildlife Protection and Research ISPRA, in Bologna, Italy. He is also in charge of the Italian bird ringing centre, and Chair of the Scientific Council of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, CMS. In the interview, he stressed that climate change is becoming one of the greatest threats to birds that breed in the Arctic.

“Birds are a very important component of wildlife in the Arctic. There are different species breeding in the Arctic. The Arctic is subject to huge risks due to global warming. It is crucially important that we conserve such a unique ecosystem in the world. Birds have adapted to living in the Arctic over millions of years of evolution, and it’s a unique physiological and feeding adaptation. And it is our duty to conserve the Arctic as one of the few if not the only ecosystems which is still relatively intact in the world. This is a major duty we have from all possible perspectives, including an ethical and moral duty, ” he says.  We talked about the seasonal mismatch, when birds arrive too early or too late to find the insects they expect to encounter and need to feed their young.

Zackenberg Station from the air (IQ)

Zackenberg Station from the air (IQ)

This reminds me of a visit to Zackenberg station in eastern Greenland in 2009. At that time,  Lars Holst Hansen, the deputy station leader, told me the long-tailed skuas were not breeding because they rely on lemmings as prey. The lemmings were scarce because of changes in the snow cover.

Jeroen Reneerkens is another regular visitor to Zackenberg, as he tracks the migration of sanderlings between Africa and Greenland. A great project and an informative website!

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

 Morten Rasch from the Arctic Environment Dept of Aarhus University in Denmark is the coordinator of one of the most ambitious ecological monitoring programmes in the Arctic. The Greenland Environment Monitoring Programme includes 2 stations, Zackenberg, which is in the High Arctic region and Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in the “Lower” Arctic. Hansen and other members of Rasch’s teams monitor 3,500 different parameters in a cross-disciplinary project, combining biology, geology, glaciology, all aspects of research into the fragile eco-systems of the Arctic. At that time, he told me during an interview,  ten years of monitoring had already come up with worrying results:

“We have experienced that temperature is increasing, we have experienced an increasing amount of extreme flooding events in the river, we have experienced that phenology of different species at the start-up of their growing season or the appearance of different  insects for instance now comes at least 14 days earlier than when we started. And for some species, even one month earlier. And that’s a lot.  You have to realise the entire growing season in these areas is only 3 months. When we start up at Zackenberg in late May, or the beginning of June, the ecosystem is completely covered in snow and more or less frozen, and when we leave, in normal years – or BEFORE climate change took over – then we left around 1st September and the ecosystem actually started to freeze up.  So the entire biological ecosystem only has 3 months to reproduce and so on. And in relation to that, a movement in the start of the system between 14 days and one month – that’s a lot.”

Listen to my radio feature: Changing Arctic, Changing World

I can’t write about birds and climate change in the Arctic without finishing off with a mention of George Divoky,  an ornithologist whose bird-monitoring has actually turned into climate-change monitoring on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. George looks after a colony of Black Guillemots and spends his summer on the island. In recent years, he has taken to putting up bear-proof nest boxes for the birds, because polar bears increasingly come to visit, as the melting of the sea ice has reduced their hunting options. He has also observed the presence of new types of birds which die not previously come this far north.

 

At Zackenberg, Greenland

Happy family  at Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Date

June 26, 2014 | 9:44 am

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Climate talks at glacial place?

iceblogger iq

Who would have believed it? It has been a long time since the routine UN climate talks in Bonn aroused much in the way of enthusiasm. Frustration or even despair were more likely the order of the day.

Since the debacle in Copenhagen in 2009, it has been hard to stir up any kind of optimism in the climate debate. The planet is heating up, CO2 emissions are still on the increase, the ice caps are melting, storms, floods and droughts are causing huge problems even for wealthy, industrialized nations.

At the same time the UN negotiations have been slithering along at glacial pace. One upon a time, that meant very slow. But with increasing warming, even the ice giants are on the move. The sea level is rising – and maybe even the UN climate talks are sliding into motion.

A glimmer of hope from the climate sinners?

In recent years, the UN summer meetings on the banks of the Rhine were at best good to fill a hole on a news-slack day. This time, it was different. Just before the talks started, US President Barack Obama got the “snowball” rolling with his announcement he would use the Environmental Protection Agency to impose tough restrictions on emissions from coal power plants.

It’s time for innovative solutions all round. Extreme weather at home has taught America to fear climate change. Obama wants climate action to be his legacy. That can only be a good thing for all of us.

Pam Pearson, Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative told me people in her home state Florida are more Aware of teh importance of the polar ice.

Pam Pearson, Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative told me people in her home state Florida are more aware of  the importance of the polar ice. (Pic: IQ)

When China then came out with the intention to cap its emissions, the world really had to sit up and take notice. Even the to-ing and fro-ing on how, why and when, or whether it was just the “personal opinion” of a high-ranking climate representative could not dampen the enthusiasm. For the first time ever, it looks as if the world’s two biggest emitters could actually be prepared to act.

Meanwhile more encouraging signs came out of India and Latin America.

Renewables on the ‘up’

At the start of the Bonn talks, a broad coalition of environment, human rights, indigenous and women’s groups demonstrated outside the conference venue for a worldwide switch to renewable energies. By the end of the talks, 60 countries had signaled support for a 100 percent switch by 2050. German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks had to admit Germany was not making its targets right now, but would introduce new measures to reach its ambitious goal of a 40 percent emissions reduction by 2020.

If the EU could also bring itself to increase its targets and regain its old position as a climate leader, if the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine dispute could convince politicians that renewable energy is the key to energy security and independence, Europe could well be on its way to hosting a conference that will give birth to a new global agreement.

And even if the UN structures cannot move fast enough: renewable energies are on the rise. UNEP figures show more investment in renewables in the last year than in oil, coal and gas together. Even outside the UN context governments, companies and consumers are finding reason enough to reduce fossil fuel consumption. All is not yet lost for the melting icecaps. The climate snowball is gathering speed.

(I.Quaile)

(I.Quaile)

Date

June 16, 2014 | 9:37 am

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